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The Honda Classic Preview

The Honda Classic Preview

The PGA Tour’s  The Honda Classic beginning Thursday should provide some first-class competition, and hopefully, top-play excitement as most of the Tour’s big names face off and try to avoid getting ensnared in the PGA National Golf Club’s infamous three-hole “Bear Trap.”

It’s only the end of the February, and the Tour is already more than a dozen tourneys in with The Honda Classic, with a $6 million purse. The tournament at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., also marks a string of four consecutive Florida events, after prolonged swings in California and the desert.

Only three of the top-10 players, to date, won’t be participating, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Jason Day, the last of whom just came off a grueling extra-hole match-play contest in Arizona.

So, there’s no shortage of Tour stars as the season begins to really kick into gear under what should be balmy weather conditions. Rory McIlroy, who won two years ago, Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, Phil Michelson, Zach Johnson, Adam Scott Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson all are competing.

Plus, the field includes fan favorites such as Vijay Singh (who was leading early on the first day) and Davis Love III.

But there’s an argument to be made that the usual leaders, regardless of Vegas odds-makers’ predictions, will be more focused on readying themselves for the Masters Tournament, which suddenly is coming up quick in April.  

honda classic

Teeing off at one of three “Bear Trap” holes at PGA National Golf Club. Photo courtesy The Honda Classic. 

So, whom to watch?

Stenson is interesting and a Las Vegas bookmaker pick. Garcia can be a bit of a head scratcher but looks to have it figured out more consistently now. And Johnson, Westwood and Scott are bunched up in the penthouse together with the Tour’s other besties.

Then again, if the superstars might be looking ahead to Augusta, perhaps you should take a close look at either Graeme McDowell or Rickie Fowler, both of whom are hot and yet relatively well-rested.

McDowell lost in the semis at World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain to the surprise and now up-and-coming second-place finisher Victor Dubuisson. Meanwhile, Fowler took home a third place by beating Ernie Els, who is sitting this weekend out. 

We’ll see if Fowler can keep the momentum going, as quite a few folks predict. 

One of the most intriguing players, of course, remains Woods. He’s never won this particular tournament and hasn’t played much so far this year.

While Woods remains The Honda Classic co-favorite, he took about a month off with his girlfriend for the Winter Olympics halfway across the world (Heck yeah, I’d also be saying, “Whatever you want, honey.”). His critics also like to point out that Woods is sluggish coming off most breaks. 

Yes, in addition, he finished 80th at the Farmers Insurance Open several weeks ago. Then again, he’s still Tiger Woods, even a broad-chested version of himself — if that actually matters. 

The question many PGA observers are asking now is whether 2014 will be the 24-year-old McIlroy’s year — who is the tourney’s other co-favorite. Can he put it together week to week for the entire season? This would be a nice way to help set the season’s pace.

McIlroy captured the Honda Classic in 2012 but infamously withdrew last year due to tooth pain. While McIlroy also sat out last week, so did with Woods and Michelson, though.

The curiosity surrounding Michelson is if and when he can return to form following a back injury. Lefty says he’s good to go and has a history of coming back strong. However — despite the marvels of modern medicine — back pain is notoriously difficult from which to recover. If at all.   

Oh, don’t forget former Masters’ winner Charl Schwartzel, who is atop the early picks. Meanwhile, Rose, projected by many prognosticators to be standing at the podium, just pulled out of the Honda Classic.

A reported-consensus sleeper reportedly is Matt Jones, who has been regularly making cuts this season and had a good finish at the PGA National Golf Club a year ago. I don’t get it. Maybe.

Then, there’s last year’s Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson. He’s sticking around this season and looks to be a true pick.

However, aside from McIlroy, the other three of the last five winners, Rory Sabbatini, Camilo Villegas and Y.E. Yang, are considered long shots. Almost out of the game.

My pick: McIlroy.

Why? He dresses snazzy — and, um, is youngish enough not to be looking too far ahead and continues to keep putting it all together. He’s a preview leader, sure, but there are good reasons for that, is what I’m saying.

OK, I don’t have the guts to bet against the house on this one. Or many/any single-digit odds to win in golf, honestly.   

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