Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 1, 2020

These Guys Are Good, But This Course Is Better

It’s been a couple years since the PGA Tour shelved its long-running marketing campaign, built around the slogan “these guys are good,” in favor of a new and broader advertising tagline. But while “live under par” may call to mind a desirable approach to one’s daily routine, the new phrase has yet to crawl inside the minds of golf fans the way the old one did. That’s probably because there was so much truth in those four simple words – the players on the Tour are really, really good. Whether standing along the ropes at a tournament or watching from home, fans marvel at the ability and imagination their favorite golfers display shot after shot, round after round, on courses both venerable and modern.

Between New Year’s Day and the start of this week’s stop in Palm Beach Gardens, there were nine events on the PGA Tour’s schedule, including two last week when the Puerto Rico Open was staged opposite the limited field World Golf Championship tournament, the WGC-Mexico Championship. To win any of the nine a golfer had to finish four rounds double-digits under par. The average winning total was nearly 17-under, with Viktor Hovland taking the title in Puerto Rico at minus-20 and Andrew Landry shooting 26-under to capture the American Express in the California desert in mid-January.

As evidenced by the identities of those two tournament winners, it’s not just golfers whose names are immediately recognizable to casual fans who can go low and turn a supposedly stern test of golf into a pitch-and-putt course. Drives boom three hundred plus yards, par-5s become two shot holes for most of the field, approach shots land like darts thrown at the hole, and putts roll in from all over the green. The weekend hacker can only stare in awe.

Then comes the Honda Classic. Born as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in the days when celebrities regularly attached their names to tournaments, the Honda has been around for nearly half a century. Over that long history the event has had multiple sponsors and been played at many different courses. But since its 2007 move to the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, the Honda has become known as one of the most challenging stops on the Tour. Of the thirteen Honda’s contested over the Champion’s layout prior to this week, only three produced a winning score of ten or more strokes under par. Not surprisingly, two of those – Camilo Villegas’s 13-under in 2010 and Rickie Fowler’s 12-under in 2017 – were also the only years when the margin of victory was more than two shots. Thanks to its 2002 renovation by Jack Nicklaus, PGA National’s premier eighteen is a brutal routing that regularly ranks at or very near the top of the annual list of hardest courses on Tour.

While golf course design has focused on length for the past two decades, the Champion is not unusually long. Rather the challenge is to avoid the stiff penalty exacted for a wayward shot. Fairway bunkers abound, waiting to swallow up a drive hit just a bit offline. Should he stray further a player will lament not finding the sand, for water hazards are everywhere, lining the entire length of some holes and forcing many approach shots to carry all the way to the putting surface or face a watery demise. Add in the wind that often blows in Florida in late winter, and a walk around the Champion can be exhausting even for golf’s elite. They are still very good, of course, but while playing the Honda touring pros sometimes look a little like 20-handicappers having a bad day. For some the rough experience turns into outright disaster at the Bear Trap, the three hole stretch from the 15th through 17th named in honor of Nicklaus, the Golden Bear during his playing days. A par-4 sandwiched between two par-3s, the Bear Trap appears more white and blue, with its copious sand and water, than it does green when NBC’s telecast follows the final groups as they stagger home on Sunday afternoon.

This year’s Honda stayed true to the tournament’s character from the opening tee shot to the final hole. World number three Brooks Koepka, the top-ranked player in the field, and fan favorite as well as former champion Fowler both paid only short visits to the tournament. Within his first nine holes Koepka recorded both a triple and a double bogey, while Fowler bogeyed two of the first three holes he played on his way to an opening 6-over par 76. Both finished two rounds outside the cut line and were long gone by the time the weekend throngs arrived. Major champions Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley and Louis Oosthuizen also failed to qualify for the weekend, and recent winner Hovland discovered that 20-under for four rounds one week can turn into 10-over for two circuits the next.

The carnage continued through the weekend. England’s Tommy Fleetwood, one of the stars of Europe’s decisive win over the United States at the 2018 Ryder Cup, began Sunday in the lead with hopes of posting his first PGA Tour win to go with five victories on the European Tour. But after opening with back-to-back birdies Fleetwood’s putter went cold, and both he and playing partner Brendan Steele watched their chances slip away. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Sungjae Im of Korea, moved up the leader board with four birdies on the front nine, and then showed a resolve well beyond his 21 years by not collapsing after back-to-back bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes. Im birdied both par-3s in the Bear Trap, then overcome shaky play at the last to post a 4-under par 66 for the round and a very typical winning total of minus-6.

The final pairing was still in it standing in the 18th fairway, but first Steele then Fleetwood rinsed away their remaining chances with approach shots that splashed into the water fronting the final green, even as viewers at home thought “I could have done that!” Sungjae Im became the youngest winner in the history of the event, but the real victor this week, as usual at the Honda Classic, was PGA National’s Champion course.

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