Pat Mayo provides a quick preview and makes his early 2021 Honda Classic Picks in his first look and gives his research for the PGA TOUR event.
2021 Honda Classic: Field
Field: 144 Players
Cut: Top 65 and Ties after 36 Holes
First Tee: Thursday, March 18
Defending Champion: Sungjae Im
If you thought the Honda Classic got the scheduling shaft in past years its new placement on the PGA TOUR schedule is essentially a worst-case scenario. Starting in 2019, the Honda was shifted a week in the schedule from directly after the Genesis Invitational, then the Genesis Open, to two weeks later. Originally, when the WGC event was held at Doral, Honda would kick off the Florida Swing, and draw a solid field, then all the studs would play Doral, skip Valspar then take on Bay Hill and the Match Play in the pre-Masters lead in.
The combination of the WGC moving to Mexico and THE PLAYERS shifting spots from May to March severely crippled the overall field strength of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, along with a widening gap since Arnie’s passing, and left the Honda field barren of top-tier talent. Now, instead of having the Valspar as the logical event to take a pass, Honda has become that tournament now sandwiched in between THE PLAYERS and the Match Play.
Additionally, the rise of the Genesis Invitational, now Tiger’s event, has had a major impact on all of this as well. While Riviera would draw a good field, in the past few years it’s become a premier non-major event every year. With the old schedule, enough top names would still take a pass and head to Honda to kick off the Florida Swing. But it doesn’t have that luxury anymore. So, the Genesis had not only destroyed previous iterations of the Honda Classic with the old schedule, it’s now just actively killing Pebble Beach with the new schedule.
It’s a shame. While I love Pebble Beach, the Pro-Am element to that event makes it one of the worst viewing experiences every season, so I’m not too torn up about that, but Honda? Come on. PGA National rules! It’s one of the few consistently challenging courses in the regular PGA TOUR rotation and now it’s a glorified Sony Open. Scratch that, comparing the two fields in 2021, the Honda actually has a weaker field. Maybe its difficulty is playing a factor too?
Daniel Berger, Sungjae Im, Joaquin Niemann, Adam Scott and Lee Westwood are elites in the field at the 2021 Honda Classic. Those first four were almost among the top names at Sony this year too, the difference being Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Collin Morikawa, Billy Horschel, Sergio Garcia and Hideki Matsuyama aren’t in this field.
No, taking the place of those players at the top of the DraftKings pricing and betting board this week are Shane Lowry, Cameron Davis, Ian Poulter, Brian Harman, Gary Woodland, Chris Kirk, Alex Noren, Keith Mitchell, Cameron Tringale, Russell Henley, Luke List, Chez Reavie, Brendan Steele, Kevin Streelman, Erik van Rooyen and Danny Willett.
Brooks Koepka had committed to playing but had to pull out because of injury. That’s OK, though. CHASE KOEPKA is playing instead. There are a few EUROs who received special invites to play, but frankly, they should have sent out more. Matt Wallace and Lucas Herbert will be using Honda as a tune-up for the Match Play next week, while Martin Kaymer, now No. 89 in the world rankings, needs to make some Sunday leaderboard appearances soon for any shot at getting into The Masters field. Oh, Ryo Ishikawa is also playing.
Now, Brandon Wu got a spot in the field. Last year’s winner of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship was last seen churning out a T7 finish in Puerto Rico. He’s yet to fall outside the Top 15 in each of his two starts in 2021. Then there’s faded star power with Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. Stenson was a wreck at THE PLAYERS, you know what you’re getting with Phil, and he’ll probably be in a featured group this week, and Rickie. Fowler won this event in 2017, so that’s a bonus. But it’s been a tough go for the Rickster who, like Kaymer, NEEDS some elite finishes to avoid missing The Masters. Unfortunately, there are really no signs of life for the Rickster.
At least in his first three events, there was evidence that his ball-striking was returning. He was driving the ball well, and the irons which had plagued him the previous 12 months were starting to show life. He gained against the field in all his January starts, but he just couldn’t putt — something which is never really a concern for me, and especially so with Fowler. Rolling it well has never really been a prolonged problem in his career. But then the irons fell off a cliff. His putter returned at Genesis, briefly, finishing fifth in the field at Riviera which led to a backdoor T20, and it’s only gotten worse since heading to Florida.
I, much like the rest of the golf viewing community, hope Rickie can figure it out and piece his game back together. While not a massive Jordan Spieth fan, I was surprised about much I missed him on Sunday leaderboards until the past two months. Rickie is the same way. Just having him in the mix would make things more fun. There are so few players with any discernible personality in golf that we can’t let the few we have go to waste.
Will the bounce back begin this week? Weird things happen all the time in golf, but nothing from his current form would indicate that. And, from the betting end, there’s no reason to back him whatsoever. After viewing the opening odds at DraftKings Sportsbook, because this field is so weak and lacking stars, his betting odds have been set by name-value alone. Never a good thing.
2021 Honda Classic: Key Stats
Strokes Gained: Approach
Par 4s Gained
Total Driving Gained (Spilt 70% DD + 30% DA)
Mayo’s Key Stats powered by FantasyNational.com
2021 Honda Classic: Course
PGA National (Champion)
2021 Honda Classic: Past Winners
2020: Sungjae Im -6
2019: Keith Mitchell -9
2018: Justin Thomas -8
2017: Rickie Fowler -12
2016: Adam Scott -9
2015: Paddy Harrington -6
2014: Russell Henley -8
2013: Michael Thompson -9
2012: Rory McIlroy -12
2021 Honda Classic: Notes
Do you like your courses tough? Good. PGA National is annually one of the toughest courses on TOUR. Do you like your courses beyond difficult? Then take PGA National and add the wind, which generally rears its gusty head in Palm Beach Gardens. Water is in play on 15 holes at PGA National which means the pro shop needs to overstock on sleeves. A mere 6,059 balls have plunged into the water since 2007. There are also 78 sand traps scattered across the grounds, and they’re not the simple up-and-down bunkers. They’re going to cause problems.
The water/sand combo makes this an extremely difficult scrambling course. The GIR rate is only 60% (against the TOUR average of 66%) and the historic scrambling percentage is just 55% for the field. It’s tough scrambling after a wet tee shot, it turns out. Then, there are ungodly tough stretches on the scorecard. Since the Bear Trap, (holes 15/16/17) gets its own dedicated TV feed, most are familiar with it. Since 2007, it’s played as the third-hardest three-hole collection outside the Majors, but holes 5/6/7 are just as tough. They’ve played as the sixth-most difficult stretch. It just doesn’t have a catchy moniker. When you scan your lineups after Thursday and wonder how a guy you liked fired an 80, go take a quick gander at these six holes.
Let’s also consider that 1,515 balls have been hit into the water in the Bear Trap since 2007. Those three-holes account for 17% of all bogeys, 32% of all doubles and 37% of all triples or worse on the course.
There is a mini-hack for DraftKings lineups. Since birdie streaks are going to be sparse this week, players starting on hole No. 10 have a slightly better chance of running three in a row together and earning those very valuable bonus points. Hole No. 18, the par 5, is the second easiest on the course. Hole No. 1 is the third easiest (18% birdie rate), so if you can get lucky on No. 2, you’re going streaking.
You’d think a course under 7,200 yards would favor almost any skill set, as the forced lay ups and more accurate, shorting hitting players would have an advantage by not always being in the water. That hasn’t been the case, however. Recent history actually has leaned toward the longer hitters by the time Sunday concludes. Like with the low scrambling number, PGA National has one of the lowest driving distance averages of any course: 272 yards to the TOUR average of 283 yards. The thing is, since the deep drivers must lay up, their accuracy greatly improves, yet they still have the benefit of the short clubs onto greens. It makes the two par 5s far more gettable, and longer hitters may have an advantage cutting through the wind if it picks up.
The past three years the cut line has been +4/+3/+6.
Among the top 5 finishers, Strokes Gained: Approach has been over twice as impactful per round than SG: OTT and SG: ARG combined: +1.23 to +0.53.
No player has defended his title at the Honda Classic since the event moved to PGA National in 2007, and no golfer has done it period since Jack Nicklaus in 1978. PGA National is another Nicklaus design, like The Concession a few weeks back and per Fantasy National, over the past three seasons, Rickie Fowler, Russell Henley, Gary Woodland, Chase Seiffert and Matt Wallace have the most Strokes Gained: Total on Nicklaus courses. If we just look at Ball Striking (OTT + APP), it’s Henley, Woodland, Sam Ryder, Troy Merritt and Kevin Streelman.
There have been substantial crossover leaderboards between the Honda Classic and Sony Open over the years; both are shorter (par 70), wind-influenced tracks. Russell Henley, Mark Wilson, Ernie Els and Justin Thomas have all won at Waialae CC (Sony Open) and PGA National (Honda Classic). Kirk, Niemann, Steele, Berger, Kizzire, Henley, Matt Jones, Peter Malnati, Nick Taylor and Keith Mitchell all finished inside the top 15 at the Sony Open in January.
Of players who’ve made at least three starts here over the past five seasons, Jason Dufner, Gary Woodland, Jhonattan Vegas, Ben An and Stewart Cink are the only players in the field that have not missed a cut.
In the past five years, Rickie Fowler (36.51), Adam Scott, Ben An, Gary Woodland and Lucas Glover have gained the most total strokes at PGA National. In two appearances, Wyndham Clark has no finishes worse than T11.
2021 Honda Classic Picks
Joaquin Niemann ($10,400)
Niemann still isn’t on quite the run we saw in Hawaii, but he’s still been solid and against much stronger competition, as well. He’s gained ball striking against the field in 10 of his past 11 starts, and while he’s had little success at PGA National, Niemann has taken a leap since golf returned following the COVID-19 hiatus a year ago. Plus, he’s proven himself to be one of the premier wind and difficult course players in the world over the past two years. As long as his putter doesn’t fail him, he’ll be in contention.
Chez Reavie ($7,000)
Ol’ Chez can always putt his way out of a tournament, exhibit A being last week at Sawgrass. Reavie gained a staggering 5.4 strokes against the field ball striking in only two rounds at THE PLAYERS … and proceeded to drop 7.6 strokes chipping and putting. One of the most accurate players in the field, he just needs the flat stick to run average for a few rounds and he can be in the mix at a discount price. Reavie very sneakily is seventh in total strokes gained on Jack Nicklaus courses the past three seasons, too.
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Pat Mayo is an award-winning video host and producer of long and short-form content, and the host of The Pat Mayo Experience daily talk show. (Subscribe for video or audio). Mayo (@ThePME) won the 2020 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Golf Writer of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Sports Betting Analyst award, and was a finalist for four FSWA Awards in 2020 (Best Podcast, Best Video, Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year). His 21 FSWA nominations lead all writers this decade and are third-most all-time. Mayo has been recognized across multiple sports (Football, Baseball & Golf), mediums (Video, Writing & Podcasting), genre (Humor), and game formats (Daily Fantasy and Traditions Season Long). Beyond sports, Mayo covers everything from entertainment to pop culture to politics. If you have a fantasy question, general inquiry or snarky comment, ship it to Mayo at [email protected] and the best will be addressed on the show.
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