The Honda Classic Preview

            The PGA Tour finishes off the Florida swing with a trip to PGA National Resort & Spa for the Honda Classic. The Honda Classic is routinely one of the toughest Non-Major events of the year. PGA National was originally designed by Tom Fazio, but went under renovations in 1990 and 2013, both times the re-design was led by Jack Nicklaus. The field for this event is the weakest field we have seen this season. The majority of top-end talent is taking the week off after an exciting weekend at the PLAYERS Championship. Next week is the WGC Match Play, so this week is a natural resting spot for most players.

The field this week will face a daunting course. PGA National is a Par 70 that measures 7,125 yards and features TifEagle Bermudagrass. The difficulty of this course is highlighted by a 3 hole stretch on the Back-9 that is known as the “Bear Trap.” The “Bear Trap” starts at Hole 15 and ends on Hole 17. It is a Par 3, Par 4, Par 3. This challenging ending can lead to crazy and unpredictable finishes. Over the last 10 years, four winners were ranked inside the Top 15 OWGR, and five winners were ranked outside of the Top 100. This week is truly boom or bust. There are 26 total water hazards across the course, and the course does not have much protection from the wind. Early in the week, the forecast is calling for windy conditions all four days, and brutal winds on Sunday.

My handicapping process for this week began by reviewing the scorecards of previous winners to see if any stats in particular stood out. The most recent winners of this event are Sungjae Im, Keith Mitchell, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, and Adam Scott. Im, Mitchell, and Thomas were all #1 in Tee-to-Green the week that they won. Tee-to-Green will be important this week because of the difficulty of the course. Golfers will need to be able to gain strokes Off-the-Tee and on Approach to have good looks at birdie and easier Par saves. The winning score of this event over the last five years has been: -6, -9, -8, -12, and -9. The winning score this week will not be low, especially with wind in the forecast.

Golfers will make bogeys this week, the key will be avoiding double bogeys or worse, and capitalizing on every birdie opportunity. While the winning scores have not been low, the last five winners have all made at least 15 birdies on their way to victory. Being a Par 70, there are twelve Par 4s that will be played this week. Par 4 Scoring Average is a scoring stat I looked to this week because golfers will face 48 total Par 4s. Avoiding bogeys on these holes and creating scoring opportunities will be critical. There are only two Par 5s this week, and these holes are must-birdie holes. The Par 5s give golfers a reprieve from the grind of the other holes. The last five winners have combined to score on 25% of the Par 3s that they faced. The scoring will mostly come on the Par 3s and Par 5s which means Pars are good scores on most holes, especially the Par 4s.

With such high variance this week, there weren’t too many correlated courses that I thought would realistically aid in the handicapping process. The only course that I looked to was Wai’alae Country Club where the Sony Open is hosted. There have been strong cross-over leaderboards between there two events.

Key Stats: Off-the-Tee, Approach, Tee-to-Green, Distance, Greens-in-Regulation, and Scrambling

Scoring: Par 4 Efficiency 400-450 yards, Bogey Avoidance, Par 4 Scoring Average, Par 5 Birdie or Better, and Birdie Average

Honda Classic Tips

Joaquin Niemann 20-1 (Fanduel)

            Niemann started 2021 on fire with back-to-back runner-up finishes in Hawaii. Niemann was a combined a -45 over those two events and somehow didn’t record a win. Since that hot start, Niemann has cooled off slightly. Over his last five events he has finishes of: T29, T28, T43, 2, and 2. The second-place finish at the Sony Open is encouraging because Sony was the lone correlated course I looked to this week. Over his last 24 rounds, Niemann is gaining strokes in every major category, highlighted by gaining 1.27 strokes Tee-to-Green per round. Using 2021 ShotLink data, in this field Niemann ranks: second Tee-to-Green, fourth Off-the-Tee, fourth in Driving Distance, seventh in Par 4 Scoring Average, tenth in Greens-in-Regulation, and 23rd in Approach. Niemann is a great ball-striker who has been knocking on the door for his second career PGA Tour win. In a watered-down field at an event that has seen favorites win, Niemann is in a great spot this week.

Shane Lowry 35-1 (DraftKings)

          Lowry got off to a rough start in 2021 finishing T48 and missing the cut in his first two events. However, last week at the PLAYERS Championship, Lowry was able to quietly finish 8th by playing consistent golf. Lowry gained strokes in every major category last week, in particular 7.4 strokes Tee-to-Green, and 3.7 strokes Around-the-Green. That is a good combination for a course like PGA National. Lowry will be able to avoid major mistakes with his scrambling ability, and should be able to see some birdie putts fall. Lowry is also known as a good wind player. Lowry’s biggest win of his career was the 2019 Open Championship where he won by six strokes! Lowry is a grinder who is able to battle through adverse conditions and fight back on courses that show some teeth. This number is playable for me because of the weakness of the field, and I think Lowry’s style of play profiles very well for PGA National.

Chris Kirk 50-1 (DraftKings)

            Back in January, Kirk finished T2 at the Sony Open while using his last start with a major medical exemption. That runner-up finish at Sony, earned Kirk a full PGA card and since then he has been playing awesome golf. In 2021, Kirk has made six starts with finishes of: 2nd, 16th, MC, 16th, 8th, and 48th. The 48th place finish last week is a bit deceiving. Kirk struggled on Sunday and shot +7, but was solid all week up until that point. Over his last 24 rounds, Kirk is gaining 1.25 strokes per round Tee-to-Green, .54 strokes per round on Approach, and .56 strokes per round Around-the-Green. Kirk is a good scrambler and has been striking the ball well since the start of the year. Using 2021 ShotLink data, among this field Kirk ranks: sixth Tee-to-Green, 18th in Approach, and 24th in Scrambling. Kirk has been trending for a few weeks now, and has been in contention. This is the week that Kirk puts it all together and makes a run at his fifth career PGA Tour victory.

Matthew NeSmith 130-1 (Fanduel)

            NeSmith has been one of the best pure ball-strikers on Tour this year. Using 2021 ShotLink data, among this field NeSmith ranks: first in Greens-in-Regulation, second in Approach, fourth Tee-to-Green, and 20th Off-the-Tee. PGA National is a course where I think ball-strikers have an advantage. Being able to get the ball onto the green with birdie chances are important this week. NeSmith has struggled with his putting but one hot week with the flatstick is all he needs. In February, NeSmith played three events with three Top 20 finishes. He has struggled in Florida the past two weeks but I am looking for NeSmith to find the form he had last month. NeSmith is a PGA Tour maiden who has a great chance this week to notch his first career victory.

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