Defending champion Rickie Fowler seems to be heading everyone's list of favourites as the PGA Tour leaves behind California's Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Riviera and their poa-annua greens and heads into its Florida swing with its first stop being the Honda Classic at the PGA National Resort's unforgiving Champions Course at Palm Beach
The bookmakers, reflecting the general feeling of the gaming tipsters, have set Fowler, now the World No 7, atop their list of this week's favourites at 8/1 closely followed at 10/1 by Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner and former World No 1, and Justin Thomas, a five-time PGA Tour winner last year and the Tour's 2017 Player of the Year.
Sergio Garcia, Spain's reigning Masters champion, is next best at 18/1 followed at 28/1 by an England's Tyrrell Hatton and at 30/1 by a third American, Gary Woodland, a recent tour winner and runner-up here last year, and two more European stars, Alex Noren of Sweden and England's Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour's current Race to Dubai champion.
Yes, that's right. Five of the top eight tournament favourites are British and European natives as are nearly half of the top 30 so you can be forgiven if you believe you are reading a preview for a European Tour event when in fact it is very much of an American affair which will be fought out on one o the country's toughest par-70 courses.
Of the 1l times that PGA Tour events have been played on this course, Fowler's 12-under total last year was only the 3rd to make it into double figures - perhaps because the course was a tad easier than it had been in the previous two years when it was rated as the most difficult Par 70 course on tour outside of the majors.
Last year when Fowler won, it ranked as the 6th hardest in its category although the famed 'Bear Trap' a par 3-4-3 run starting from the 15th and that averaged 0.456 over par last year, continued to carry some of the Tour's sharpest teeth.
At 7,140 yards, PGA National's Champions Course is not an especially long one, but its many water hazards, thick, sticky rough and small, fast greens carry much danger, especially when they are combined with the omnipresent winds that so often prevail at this time of the year and which, this week, have been forecast to gust up into speeds of 29 km/h for the first three rounds before falling off into the mid-teens on Sunday.
What this means for many, is that long irons will replace drivers at some holes and that accuracy and club control rather than power and length will be of much greater importance than normally is the case. This is reflected in the following pre-tournament quotes from the Rotoworld fantasy golf preview:
Ben Crane: "It's really not a bomber's golf course. Because the rough is so thick, you've really got to put the ball in play and give yourself chances"
Wesley Bryan: "It's so tricky and challenging around the greens. It's a big, long course, tight fairways, and most of the teeth come really from 30 or 40 yards and in."
Martin Kaymer: "You really have to think your way around this course. And the wind, usually when it's up, is very difficult to play in. I enjoy it that when you stand on the first tee and you don't feel like you're already four or five shots behind. Even level par or 1-under par is a good score on this golf course."
William McGirt: "I'm just glad to be back in some warm weather and some humidity and on bermudagrass (greens)."
Jason Dufner: "I think the ball-strikers will have a little bit of an advantage being able to control their balls in that wind; working it against it or working with it to keep it in play. I grew up down here so I'm pleased to be playing in this type of weather."
Sergio Garcia: "I've always enjoyed playing in wind. I'd rather play in wind than in rain. Yeah, I enjoy the challenge of windy days. Obviously, windy days are playable, but I've always seemed to do fairly well when the wind is up."
We looked at the data from Golfweather.com's Statscast site to see how the favourites would fare in the wind and over 42 rounds it looks as if Garcia and McIlroy with an average of just over 70 shots per round were the best in winds of between 20 and 30 KM/h.
Next best was Fowler at just under 71, Woodland at 72 and Fleetwood at a distant 72.3.
But you never know. Everyone has their good and bad days, especially when playing in fields as strong as this one on a course as difficult as PGA National.
I'll, therefore, have to say the same thing as I said last year - this could be a fascinating contest on a course that puts a premium on skill and wise course management. We await the outcome with great anticipation.
FOOTNOTE: Tiger Woods, easily the 21st Century's greatest golfer until personal problems and injuries brought him down, is in this week's field, playing in only his third PGA Tour event after a year on the sidelines, but coming fresh from his missed cut at Riviera last week, he remains very much of a question mark right now.
(Tuesday a.m. Feb 19, 2018)
(From the USA unless stated)
Rickie Fowler 8/1
Justin Thomas 10/1
Rory McIlroy (NIR) 10/1
Sergio Garcia (ESP) 18/1
Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 28/1
Gary Woodland 30/1
Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) 30/1
Alex Noren (SWE) 30/1
Brian Harman 40/1
Patrick Reed 45/1
Daniel Berger 50/1
Russell Knox (SCO) 50/1
Rafael Cabrera Bello (ESP) 55/1
Brandt Snedeker 55/1
Adam Scott (AUS) 55/1
Jason Dufner 55/1
Webb Simpson 55/1
Russell Henley 60/1
Kevin Kisner 60/1
Ollie Schniederjans 60/1
Patton Kizzire 60/1
Martin Kaymer (GER) 70/1
Ryan Moore 70/1
Scott Stallings 70/1
Graeme McDowell (NIR) 75/1
Chesson Hadley 55/1
Ryan Palmer 80/1
Thomas Pieters (BEL) 66/1
Dylan Frittelli (RSA) 60/1
Tiger Woods 66/1.
NOTE: For all the latest odds go to www.oddschecker.com/golf/honda-classic/winner.
For betting odds visit BetWay.
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