Honda Classic won’t have Tiger but many young lions remain, and they’re plenty dangerous

Tiger Woods’ withdrawal due to injury last Friday surely hurt the Honda Classic’s appeal with the casual fan, and so does Rory McIroy’s expected absence while resting a sore rib, but those who follow golf more closely will still see some of the world’s hottest players in the field.

Not talking “hot” as in some kind of high-profile recognition factor with the general public but more in terms of who is playing the best at the moment.

HONOLULU, HI - JANUARY 15: Justin Thomas of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green after the final round of the Sony Open In Hawaii at Waialae Country Club on January 15, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

HONOLULU, HI – Justin Thomas of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green after the final round of the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club on January 15, 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Take Justin Thomas, 23, of Palm Beach Gardens. He was the only player in the field to shoot all four rounds in the 60’s at last year’s Honda, which earned him a tie for third place. More than that, Thomas already has three victories in the PGA Tour 2016-17 wraparound season that opened last fall, including back-to-back January wins in Hawaii.

All of this has pushed Thomas to No. 8 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and high on that same list are some Honda entrants who may not be so familiar here but are killing it on the European Tour.

Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, you already know about, but how about Tyrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick, who also are from England?

Hatton had top-10 finishes at the British Open and the PGA Championship last year and already in 2017 he has a couple of top-three’s on the European Tour.

Fitzpatrick, only 22, won the DP World Tour event in Dubai last November and tied for seventh at last year’s Masters. He’s a former U.S. Amateur champion, too.

Getting back to the PGA Tour, five golfers who have won tournaments this season are in the Honda field.

They are Thomas (CIMB Classic, SBS Tournament of Champions, Sony Open), Brendan Steele (Safeway Open), Mackenzie Hughes (RSM Classic), Hudson Swafford (CareerBuilder Challenge) and Cody Gribble (the Sanderson Farms Championship event played opposite the elite HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship tournament).

Not exactly headliners but remember the 2014 Honda Classic, where Russell Henley, a one-time winner on the PGA Tour, beat McIlroy and three others in a playoff.

You never know what’s going to happen in a sport ruled by 20-something’s.

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Australian Adam Scott is the defending Honda champion. He went nine-under for 72 holes on PGA National’s Champion course. That was one stroke better than Sergio Garcia, who also is back last year and on a hot streak himself. Just two weeks ago the Spaniard won the Dubai Desert Classic by three strokes.

Players have until Friday night to confirm their participation in the Feb. 23-26 Honda field, which means there could still be a few big names to come.