Take a chance in Honda Classic

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: February 25 2014, 12:54 GMT

Ben Coley previews the Honda Classic and fancies Boo Weekley and Will MacKenzie to go close at a course they both know well.

Justin Rose: Can continue his fine association with the Honda
Justin Rose: Can continue his fine association with the Honda

The Honda Classic sits between two World Golf Championship events and, unsurprisingly, can pretty much match both of them in terms of field quality.

Indeed, this week world number one Tiger Woods returns to action having skipped the match play and so too do Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson in an event which has attracted several of the star names on the PGA Tour.

The Honda has been staged at PGA National, famed for it's four-hole closing stretch known as 'The Bear Trap', since 2007 when Mark Wilson walked off with the title after a Monday play-off.

Redesigned by the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus, it's an extremely difficult layout which last year played to an average of 71.318 versus a par of 70. Indeed, it ranked toughest of all non-major par 70 courses on the PGA Tour as Michael Thompson landed a first title at the expense of Geoff Ogilvy .

Victory for Thompson was an upset and that's not uncommon at this course and indeed this tournament, one which neither Woods, Mickelson nor Scott have yet won.

But this week may see a change to that last fact, because in skipping the Match Play all three have apparently enhanced their prospects.

Since moving to PGA National in 2007, this event has taken place the week after the Match Play on six occasions. Four of those were won by a player who didn't take part the week before, while Ernie Els won the title having lost in round one at Dove Mountain.

The exception is 2012 Accenture runner-up Rory McIlroy, who scrambled his way to victory the following week when, for once, the leaderboard was dominated by the very best players in the field. That, however, is very much the exception to the rule as in 2009 not one of the top 10 had played the match play, and just last year the only two big names to place after a Dove Mountain appearance had played three matches between them.

To me that's a fascinating trend and while not certain to be continued, such is the depth to the evidence that I'm compelled to ignore the likes of Rickie Fowler and Graeme McDowell, who played brilliant golf at times last week. Fowler's swing changes are clearly paying off and he'd be of particular interest were it not for a contracted price when, according to history, his prospects have decreased with third place in Arizona.

In terms of the course itself, interview transcripts will reveal that players consider this an all-round test and don't expect to contend unless driving it well given what, for a Nicklaus design, are small targets off the tee.

However, the key stat has been scrambling in recent years and whoever ends the week in the top five for getting up and down will likely have gone very close to winning the title. The trouble is, those who applied that formula - the likes of McIlroy and Rory Sabbatini - weren't lighting up the scrambling stats prior to winning so relying on such lists is dangerous.

As for Scott, Mickelson and Woods, it's only really the middle man of the trio who appeals and that's purely down to his price of 25/1. Woods has been a shadow of even his 2013 self so far this season while Scott is entitled to be a little ring-rusty and missed the cut on his last visit.

Unfortunately, we can't eliminate too many players on account of good play last week with Jason Day, Ernie Els, Victor Dubuisson and Jim Furyk among those opting to recharge the batteries before the Cadillac Championship next week.

But what we can do is take a couple of inflated prices about a couple of players who didn't set the world alight in Arizona, safe in the knowledge that their failure to do is probably irrelevant.

Step forward Justin Rose, who is worth chancing on what's just his third start back from injury.

That has to be a concern, of course, but here we have a player with an exceptional record at PGA National which includes placed finishes on each of his last three visits.

That form is basically unrivalled with most players owning patchy at best figures, and it shouldn't come as a surprise given that Rose also has an excellent record at Muirfield Village where he's a former champion. That course is also a Nicklaus design which time and time again proves a pointer towards this event.

You probably don't need me to tell you Rose's strengths but clearly he's a world-class ball-striker who will keep his ball in play better than most and it's no coincidence that last year's major breakthrough came on a tough par 70 which required tee-to-green precision as well as extremely impressive concentration levels.

"I like the style of golf that's required here," he said in 2012. "Some weeks, the challenge is to make as many birdies as possible, and other weeks, it's limit the mistakes. And this is definitely a limit‑the‑mistakes kind of golf course. I think it rewards good ball‑striking. I think it rewards good thinking, and I like to play that style of golf."

Other than that there isn't a great deal to say, except that had Rose reached the semi-finals last week we'd probably have seen quotes nearer to 14/1 than the 25s that's freely available and, as touched on above, the only thing that really concerns me is his fitness.

There have been positive reports in that regard, however, and I'm prepared to take the chance at what's an ideal venue for Rose.

Local knowledge doesn't always pave the way for strong results but there's every hope it can for Will MacKenzie, who makes a lot of appeal at fancy prices.

MacKenzie is a bit of a journeyman pro to an extent but he's always been considered a talented player and the evidence so far this season suggests he could be challenging for titles at some point.

If that's to prove the case, PGA National is probably the best venue for him despite the strength of the field. MacKenzie moved nearby in 2003 following the death of his father and claimed to have played the course over 50 times before finishing fifth here in 2009. A year later, he returned to finish 12th and he'll have been excited at the opportunity to return here for some time now.

So far this season he's made seven out of nine cuts, only narrowly missing out at the Sony Open and shooting 79 in round two to miss out at the McGladrey. However, in five of those seven he's gone on to produce a top 20 finish and at second in the PGA Tour's all-around ranking, there's a lot to like about the way he's playing.

When asked about how familiar he was with the course and how that helped him, MacKenzie replied: "Yeah, that's the key, sleeping in my own bed, playing a course I've played 50 times, playing on familiar grass, bermuda greens, they are not really overseeded; it's just really nice to be back home."

Having had the opportunity to recharge the batteries since a solid but unspectacular week out in California, take the 39-year-old to continue his resurgence by hitting the frame at a big price.

Whenever a course demands an exceptional ball-striker who can cope with typical Palm Beach winds, Boo Weekley has to come into consideration and he's well worth a go at three-figure prices.

As a two-time winner at Harbour Town as well as landing last year's Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, there are only certain courses you'd ever want to be backing Boo at and this is most certainly one of them.

In truth, Weekley should have won the Honda already as a par on the closing hole would've secured him victory in 2007. Instead, the nerves got to him as he three-putted for bogey before losing in a four-way play-off the following day.

Given that he's struggled throughout his career with injuries, it's no surprise that Weekley's record since has in the main been really poor. However, he rekindled the flame last year when third at halfway before finishing 25th and again, he's since returned to the winners' circle.

A look at his recent form shows that Weekley had been churning out cuts prior to withdrawing from the Humana Challenge, and he looked to be in decent shape when losing 3&2 to McIlroy in the first round last week.

As with Rose, he does come with certain risks but at the price, Florida native Weekley is great value having ranked 13th for greens hit here last year.

It would be no surprise to see Thorbjorn Olesen take to this course at the first time of asking and he's considered along with Peter Hanson and Jamie Donaldson in an event that's been pretty kind for non-US players over the years.

Of the home contingent, Luke Guthrie has to be given respect after his fine effort a year ago while Charles Howell III is probably a fair bet to finish inside the top 20.

However, at a bigger price than all of them I'm going to chance Paul Casey's class shining through.

The Englishman played some excellent golf when last seen in action to finish ninth in Dubai and 2014 is a big year for him, after he returned to winning form in last year's Irish Open.

A fine wind player, PGA National is a good fit and he was fourth here in 2010, when paying compliment to a course that provides a stern challenge for the world's best.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Casey confirmed that watching Henrik Stenson dominate at the back-end of 2013 had really spurred him on as the Swede, like Casey, has gone through his share of injury problems.

Casey also claimed that his ball-striking is as good as it has ever been and while he's prone to being bullish, he's also offered plenty of hard evidence that he's started on the road back to the top 50.

A win here would just about see to that and allow Casey to launch a bid to return to the Ryder Cup side. It's asking a lot, but we know he's capable and certainly won't fail for a lack of self belief.

Finally, Russell Henley is worth a speculative bet.

Winner of last year's Sony Open, Henley remains capable of becoming a star even if his fledgling career has stalled somewhat since then.

The simple reason for backing him is that we know he's a good wind player who finished 13th here on his debut a year ago, before adding sixth at Muirfield Village. Both performances came while he was seemingly out of sorts so while a missed cut at Riviera isn't ideal, it's not the end of the world.

Certainly, the fact that he carded six birdies and just one bogey in a second-round 66, a score bettered by only two players, offers hope that this talented prospect could be about to return to the sort of form that earned him such plaudits in the early part of 2013.

  • Justin Rose has withdrawn from the event


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