Justin Thomas’ climb to No. 2 in the world further boosts Honda Classic’s reputation

Honda Classic champion Justin Thomas almost made it back-to-back victories on the PGA Tour, finishing second to Phil Mickelson Sunday in a playoff for the World Golf Championship event in Mexico.

What does this mean? Well, JT is red hot, for one thing, and he’s earned a break after three top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour in the space of three weeks. Thomas is skipping this week’s Valspar Championship near Tampa, an event that otherwise is loading up on more stars than usual with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the field.

Justin Thomas reacts to winning the 2018 Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 25, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

In the longer view, the upward trend in Thomas’ game seems to have no end.

Two wins already this season, including October’s CJ Cup in South Korea. Seven wins in the last 33 events. Seven top-10 finishes in the last 13. Second behind Dustin Johnson in the Official World Golf Rankings.

This is looking every bit as dominating as the run that first lifted McIlroy to No. 1 in the world. The year was 2012 and Rory followed up a Honda win with three more Tour victories, including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

McIlroy was 22 when he won that Honda and first climbed to No. 1 in the process.

Thomas, 24, is every bit as ambitious. The way he’s going, he’ll be a threat to win at the Masters, where a tie for 22nd is his previous best. Overall, there’s no reason to think that JT won’t eventually match McIlroy’s running total of four major championships.

To have both of these young men based in Jupiter is a gift to the Honda Classic. Now if we can just get world Dustin, another local, to return to PGA National. Haven’t seen him in the Honda since a missed cut in 2015.

Top-ranked golfers and Palm Beach County’s PGA Tour stop really should go together. Since the Honda moved to PGA National in 2007, three players who at one point topped the world rankings have won the tournament. They are McIlroy, Ernie Els and Adam Scott.

Thomas figures to make it four, either this year or soon thereafter, when he makes it to No. 1 as well.

[Kevin Love opens up on The Players’ Tribune, a Derek Jeter project]

[Jim Kelly astonished a Boca Raton crowd with his cancer story]

[Marlins’ inaugural spring training camp 25 years ago was a blast]

Koepka and Berger make it two golf wins in a row for genuine Palm Beach County products

As if there weren’t already reason enough for golf fans to zero in on Palm Beach County, how do you like this magnetic trend?

Brooks Koepka reacts after he shoots a -16 under par to win the 2017 U.S. Open Championship on Sunday, June 18, 2017 at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS)

Brooks Koepka’s dominant U.S. Open victory at Erin Hills makes it two wins in a row on the PGA Tour for Palm Beach County high school products.

[RELATED: Photo gallery of area native Brooks Koepka through the years]

Daniel Berger, who played high school golf at William T. Dwyer, won on tour the previous week at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He and Koepka, a Cardinal Newman High School graduate, were teammates at Florida State, too.

Now I don’t mean to put undue pressure on Berger but the last seven of golf’s Grand Slam events have been won by first-time major winners and he looks like a good candidate to join the party in the near future.

Already this season Berger has four top-10 finishes on tour. In 2016, he tied for 10th at the Masters. He’s sneaking up on it, just like Koepka did. Brooks’ first close call at a major was a tie for fourth at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Koepka was 24 then, just like Berger is now.

Daniel Berger answers questions at a press conference during the practice round of the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens on February 21, 2017. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Matter of fact, Berger nearly won the Honda Classic at 21. Commuting to PGA National from his Jupiter home, he forced a playoff with eventual winner Padraig Harrington by shooting a Sunday 64.

Setting aside any local bias, the best bet overall to be the next first-time major winner is Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. He tied for second behind Koepka at Erin Hills Sunday and has been close a couple of times the last few years at the Masters and the PGA Championship.

It’s just a matter of time for 2017 Honda classic champion Rickie Fowler, too, right?

Any way you slice it, seven consecutive first-time winners in golf’s majors is the perfect demonstration of how the game is waiting for somebody to soak up all the glory in the absence of Tiger Woods. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlory and Dustin Johnson have had their hot streaks but there are so many other great young talents pushing to win.

The last time there was a streak anywhere similar to this was nine first-time major winners in a row between the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2012 U.S. Open.

[LeBron is 3-5 in NBA Finals but he’s a long way from being a loser]

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[Better know the traits of each species when hunting for NBA whales]

In order they were Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson.

McIlroy is the only player on that list who is ranked in the top 10 of the current Official World Golf Rankings.

Of, and if you’re wondring if any other Palm Beach County high school golfer has won a major, Mark Calcavecchia counts the 1989 British Open among his 13 career PGA Tour victories. Calc moved to the area from Nebraska as a teenager and won the state high school individual championship while playing for the old North Shore High School in West Palm Beach.

 

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.

It’s a soft opening for Tiger Woods’ return to Tour, and that’s a smart move

Tiger Woods says he will be back on the PGA Tour, or hopes to be back, five weeks from today.

That’s not just restarting the clock on his career. It’s winding it awful fast.

SHEBOYGAN, WI - AUGUST 13:  Tiger Woods of the United States lines up a putt on the 13th hole during the first round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on August 13, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
SHEBOYGAN, WI – AUGUST 13: Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he missed the cut at his third consecutive major.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Of course we’ll all be fascinated to watch him play in the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., Oct. 13-16. That’s the tournament they used to call the Frys.com Open. You know, the tournament won in recent years by guys like Emiliano Grillo and Bae Sang-Moon and Jonas Blixt and Bryce Molder. Didn’t know any of that? Doesn’t matter.

If Tiger is back, any tournament he plays is big news, even in the middle of football season, even when nobody can quite figure out how it is that next year’s PGA Tour schedule actually begins this year.

This is a smart move for Tiger, who doesn’t need to schedule his return for the high-impact environment of a major or any other full-field monster event. That’s what happened in 2009, when he came back from a long knee and leg rehab to win one match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and what happened again in 2010, when he tied for fourth at the Masters in his first tournament following that messy marital meltdown.

The Safeway event will be more of a soft opening. Phil Mickelson is entered, which provides credibility, but most of the other big stars are taking time off to recuperate from a busy summer that included the bonus of the Rio Olympics.

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After that, Tiger says, he hopes to play in a European Tour event in Turkey and his foundation’s own small-field event in the Bahamas, the Hero World Challenge. The whole quick reboot is over by mid-December, which provides time to schedule out all the good stuff in 2017, and we’re hoping that includes the Honda Classic.

“Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery,” Tiger wrote on his website Wednesday. “My hope is to have my game ready to go.”

Ready to win is the next step. Ready to win majors remains a massive leap.

Since Tiger won his last major, the 2008 U.S. Open, the PGA Tour has pretty much rebuilt itself on a new star system. These are players who have gotten comfortable collecting the trophies he used to own, and they’ve gotten used to the idea that it will remain so.

Here are the names of 21 players who have won their first major titles in the period since Tiger won his 14th.

Rory McIlroy (4 majors)

Jordan Spieth (2 majors)

Bubba Watson (2 majors)

Martin Kaymer (2 majors)

Charl Schwartzel

Adam Scott

Danny Willett

Lucas Glover

Graeme McDowell

Webb Simpson

Justin Rose

Dustin Johnson

Stewart Cink

Louis Oosthuizen

Darren Clarke

Henrik Stenson

Y.E. Yang

Keegan Bradley

Jason Dufner

Jason Day

Jimmy Walker

Take note that the list does not include veterans like Mickelson and Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera, who won majors before 2008 and have won majors since.

Tiger is coming back from a couple of back surgeries, and he’s coming back to a new world, one not of his making anymore.

Best to keep the expectations low.

Can’t do anything about the TV ratings, though. They’ll be high no matter what he does, which leads to reactions like this one from Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 major titles remain Tiger’s eternal quest.

“It’s great to see you back and in good health,” Jack tweeted in response to Tiger’s scheduling announcement. “You’ve done so much for the game and it’s better with you playing. Good luck!”

 

 

 

 

 

Masterful Bernhard Langer leaving most of the kids behind at the age of 58

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. – While everybody was watching Friday to see if Tom Watson might have a shot at making the cut in his final Masters, Boca Raton’s own senior star was quietly putting himself into contention to win the tournament.

OK, there’s really not much of a chance that Bernard Langer will take his third green jacket at the age of 58, but try this contrast on for size.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 08:  Bernhard Langer of Germany plays his shot from the 11th tee during the second round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bernhard Langer plays his shot from the 11th tee during the second round of the 2016 Masters Tournament. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Former Masters champion Ian Woosnam, also 58, announced Friday that he won’t play the tournament again after shooting rounds of 82 and 81 to miss the cut by a mile.

Langer, meanwhile, carefully worked his way around Augusta National in one-over 73. Add that to his opening 72 and the sturdy German has assured himself of making the Masters cut for the third time in the last four years.

When he walked off the course Friday, Langer was tied for 19th place, seven shots behind leader Jordan Spieth, who was playing the front nine. Oh, and he’s tied with World No. 1 Jason Day at the tournament’s halfway point, too.

Is it possible to do more at the age of 58? Only if you’re somebody like Jack Nicklaus, who tied for sixth here in 1998.

Nicklaus was playing very little competitive golf back then, however, while Langer is the reigning star of the Champions Tour. He has 26 victories on the senior circuit, third all-time behind Hale Irwin and Lee Trevino. He won out there with the anchor putter and he’s won already since it was banned.

[Ernie Els corrects the record; he merely six-putted his first hole at Masters]

[Just because Tiger’s not playing doesn’t mean Masters contenders aren’t talking about him]

[Dolphins got A.J. Duhe with 13th overall pick and they’re feeling lucky again]

The guy just always seems to be there. Check out the photos from Jack’s epic comeback Masters win in 1986, for instance. That’s Bernhard slipping the green jacket onto Nicklaus’ shoulders as the previous year’s champion.

Langer’s two Masters wins, as a matter of fact, give him two more than Day and Rory McIroy and Rickie Fowler, and one more, at the moment, than Spieth.

There is much more to say about Langer, but we’ll stop here. Might be better to save some of this stuff for the weekend if he starts quietly climbing up the leaderboard again.

Tom Watson on chest hair and other manly topics as he prepares for final Masters

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tom Watson plays his 43rd and final Masters this week at the age of 66. He wants to make the cut, naturally, and he wants at some point to see his name on the leaderboard next to today’s young superstars.

Last time that happened was 2010, when Watson opened with a 67 and wound up tied for 18th with Adam Scott and Ernie Els, among others.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 05:  Tom Watson of the United States speaks to the media during a practice round prior to the start of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tom Watson speaks to the media prior to the start of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Speaking of golf’s new generation, Watson favors Rory McIlroy above all the rest. Here are some of his thoughts on Rory and Jordan Spieth and Jason Day and all the rest.

“Rory’s the guy,” Watson said during a pre-tournament press conference. “He’s my pick this week. He’s just got a tremendous talent. He hits the ball high. I think it’s always been an advantage to hit the ball high on this golf course.

“These young guys, they have the skills to do different things with the golf ball when they have to, and Jordan can really maneuver the ball when he has to.

“Rory, he can emasculate a golf course. He flat can. He hits the ball high and so far. Look how good he did at Congressional.

“And Jason Day, he hits the ball very high, same trajectory, almost with every club, it seems like, from the wedge to the driver.

“I’m very impressed about how they play the game, but I’m equally impressed by how they handle themselves outside of just playing the game. They are genuinely nice people. They help people out. They treat the fans well. They kid around with the fans and they do things that I never did. I had my blinders on. If I hit it in the fairway, I was down in the fairway, and I was all game.

“And the other thing is that they are working out on their bodies more than we did…What is it with these really short-sleeved shirts, tight? They put one of those things on me and all they saw was chest hair and that I needed a manssiere.”

[Just because Tiger’s not playing doesn’t mean Masters field isn’t talking about him]

[A.J. Duhe came to Dolphins on 13th overall pick and they’re feeling lucky again]

[Gase showing signs of openness that did not come naturally to Philbin]

 

 

No first-round leader has ever won Honda Classic at PGA National and one of them missed the cut

Jim Herman prepares to start his round late in the afternoon on the tenth tee during the second round of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 27, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Jim Herman of Palm City was the first-round of the Honda Classic last year with a 65 but finished tied for seventh, three shots out of the playoff between Padraig Harrington and Daniel Berger. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

There were three 67’s in the morning group Thursday and there may be better scores in the afternoon, but no guarantees ever come with the Honda Classic first-round lead.

Matter of fact, no Thursday leader has ever won the tournament since the Honda moved to PGA National in 2007. Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald came closest, with each playing to runnerup finishes.

Camilo Villegas is the saddest story of all. He opened with a 64 to take the first-round lead in 2013 and missed the cut with a second-round 77.

It’s a major challenge stringing together subpar rounds on the Champion. Last year Padraig Harrington was the 36-hole leader but shot a 71 on Saturday to fall three shots behind 54-hole leader Ian Poulter. Eventually Harrington won the tournament in a playoff with Daniel Berger, but an even-par 70 is all he could manage in the final round.

Here’s a chart of Honda first-round leaders over the last nine tournaments and how they finished.

Yr     Player                  1st Rd           Finish         Winner

2007 Charlie Wi               65               T13             Mark Wilson (1st-rd 72)

2008  Luke Donald           64               2nd               Ernie Els (1st-rd 67)

2009   Robert Allenby    66               T5               Y.E. Yang (1st-rd 68)

2010   Michael Connell   65               T6               Camilo Villegas (1st-rd 66)

Nathan Green       65               T12

2011   Spencer Levin         67             T14             Rory Sabbatini (1st-rd 71)

2012   Davis Love III           64             T21             Rory McIlroy (1st-rd 66)

2013   Camilo Villegas       64             MC             Michael Thompson (1st-rd 67)

2014   Rory McIlroy           63               T2               Russell Henley (1st-rd 64)

2015   Jim Herman           65               T7                 P. Harrington (1st-rd 67)

[An educated guess at the winning score in this week’s Honda Classic]

[Dee Gordon brings the most momentum into Marlins’ spring training camp]

[Dolphins thought they had their very own Von Miller when they drafted Dion Jordan]

 

 

 

What will be the winning score at the Honda Classic?

 

Only four men have ever pushed their 72-hole scores into the double digits under par since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

It’s that kind of course, and PGA Tour officials set it up in that kind of way.

030710 (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post) Final round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa...Camilo Villegas lines up a putt on the 12th hole. Villegas sank the putt for a birdie.
2010 Honda Classic champion Camilo Villegas lines up a putt during the final round of the tournament on the way to a 13-under-par 267. (Palm Beach Post photo by Alan Eyestone)

So what should we expect to be the winning score this week, remembering that par on the Champion is 70?

There are some clues.

Six-under 274 got Padraig Harrington and Daniel Berger into a playoff last year, but that wouldn’t have good enough most years.

The average score to win or at least qualify for a playoff in Honda Classics played on the Champion course is nine-under 271.

What really tells the story, however, is the weather. When the wind is blowing hard from the east, like it did in 2011, that’s big trouble for everybody everywhere, but especially on the Bear Trap.

That year 65 balls wound up in the lake at No. 17 alone, which amounts to 15 percent of all shots made there. No other par-three on the PGA Tour had that many splashdowns that year.

[Honda Classic spectator’s guide]

[Full schedule of events for 2016 Honda Classic]

[Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge on the Honda Classic]

Since the forecast this week is generally mild, I’ll predict a winning score of 10-under. Don’t know whether anyone will flirt with a record single round, like the 61 that Brian Harman shot in the second round of the 2012 Honda, but it figures that somebody can string together some 67s and 68s.

Here’s the list of those who got it to double digits here and how they finished.

Name                     Yr             Score         Result

Camilo Villegas     2010           -13             Won

Rory McIlroy         2012           -12             Won

Tiger Woods         2012           -10             T-2nd

Tom Gillis               2012           -10             T-2nd

Villegas played great, of course, and won by five shots, but he had the best of it with the weather. Four days of decent springtime weather, with the most blustery day in the third round with 12 mph winds gusting to 22.

 

 

 

 

 

Sooner or later Jordan Spieth will have to give in to Honda Classic’s siren call

 

It’s a month out from the Honda Classic (Feb. 25-28) and there’s no reason to believe that Tiger Woods, who hasn’t played since August, is even a remote possibility.

You know what that means. Time for this tournament, the major event on Palm Beach County’s annual sports calendar, to go after a new giant.

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 15:  Jordan Spieth celebrates after a birdie putt on the third playoff hole to win the Valspar Championship during the final round at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 15, 2015 in Palm Harbor, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
PALM HARBOR, FL – Jordan Spieth celebrates after a birdie putt on the third playoff hole to win the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Sooner or later the Honda needs Jordan Spieth, No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings, to show up at PGA National. It won’t be easy. The guy’s been pretty busy, playing in Shanghai, Hawaii and Abu Dhabi of late. He’s at the Singapore Open right now, as a matter of fact. Also, unlike a lot of the other young stars of the PGA Tour, Spieth is not based in Palm Beach County so playing the Honda would be just one more long week on the road.

Still, the Honda staff is always shooting for aggressive, new goals. Nobody ever thought they’d get Tiger, but they did. Phil Mickelson was another longshot. He’s played here a couple of years in a row.

One day it will be Spieth, too, joining Rory McIlroy (already committed) and Rickie Fowler (assuming he’ll make the commute down from Jupiter again, too) and all the other young superstars of the game. PGA National’s Champion course, the kind that brings a great paycheck for anyone who can get under par, and the PGA National resort is a spectacular draw for the players’ families.

Surely Spieth, a two-time major champion at 22, has heard about all of this from his peers, and I’m guessing he would like to see if it’s true. What gets in the way is a schedule that’s sort of custom-fitted to include other Florida stops on tour, and a schedule that you’d have to figure would include five competitive weeks in a row if he were to play the Honda.

First of all, Spieth is the defending champion at the Valspar Championship north of St. Petersburg. That tournament is where the Texan first secured regular playing status on the PGA Tour, finishing tied for seventh in 2013 while playing on a sponsor’s exemption. Innisbrook has been good to Spieth, in other words, and it would be tough for him ever to skip the event, which comes two weeks after the Honda.

Also, there’s the Cadillac Championship at Doral, which falls the week after the Honda. Since that’s a World Golf Championships event, all the top players are basically required to attend.

How about the tournaments that immediately precede the Honda? That would be Pebble Beach and the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, two glamorous West Coast stops to which Spieth already is committed.

If there’s anything working in the Honda’s favor here, it’s that the WGC-Match Play tournament, a marathon event that often leaves its survivors longing for a little rest, has been moved to late March in Austin, Tex.

Doesn’t mean that Spieth will substitute the Honda for Innisbrook on his schedule this year, but one day he might.

As for Jason Day, another of golf’s young stars, we’ll have to wait and see about the Honda.

[The Dolphins, always in need of OL help, let a Super Bowl 50 starter get away]

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[New Dolphins offensive coordinator has counseled Adam Gase before]

He last played at PGA National in 2008 and missed the cut. Then, in 2010, he withdrew before the tournament began, saying he was exhausted after playing six rounds in the space of four days to finish third at the Match Play in Arizona. Day has played Doral and Bay Hill and sometimes Innisbrook in recent years, but the Honda will eventually pull him in, too.

It’s just too good of an event to ignore, and too good of a field to resist.