Annual Honda Classic grind awaits tour players at PGA National

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PALM BEACH GARDENS — There are two keys to success at PGA National, both of which Matt Jones utilized to perfection in last year’s Honda Classic.

The first: make a lot of birdies.

The second: don’t try to make a lot of birdies.

That’s not as contradictory a plan as it seems. Jones, after winning the Honda by five shots a year ago, echoed what other past winners of the event have said — that the key is to simply take what the course gives and not try to force anything.

“I like the toughness that the golf course provides,” said Jones, who made 20 birdies on his way to the win a year ago, matching the second most by any Honda winner in the past 11 years. “You have to be very patient out there. You can’t get greedy, or the course will bite you very quickly.”

The season’s Florida Swing starts Thursday at PGA National, with the Honda back in what had been its traditional spot leading off the run through the Sunshine State. Bay Hill awaits next week in Orlando, followed by The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach and then the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort near Tampa.

None of the world’s 10 top-ranked players are in the Honda field, which probably is a bit of a disappointment to tournament organizers. Nor are any of the reigning major champions, which in one case might be a bit of relief to those organizers.

Phil Mickelson isn’t playing this week — and it’s not clear when he will play again — yet is dominating the sport’s headlines. Mickelson apologized Tuesday for comments about the Saudis and a proposed super league that could pull players away from the PGA Tour. That, combined with a mandatory players meeting this week at PGA National, means the Mickelson storyline might be getting more attention than wondering which way the wind will blow in Palm Beach Gardens this weekend.

“I’m happy with the PGA Tour,” Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native and one of the Honda’s fan favorites, said Wednesday. “I think everybody out here is happy. He can think whatever he wants to think, man. He can do whatever he wants to do. So, I think everybody out here is happy. I think a lot of people out here have the same opinion.”

The Honda is hard enough without off-the-course drama.

In the 15 previous years that the event has been at PGA National, the average winning score is a smidge below 9 under and 10 of those events were decided by either one shot or a playoff. Jones defied both of those norms last year, shooting 12 under and winning by five.

It is a grind, which appeals to a two-time U.S. Open winner such as Koepka.

“I like it because it’s difficult,” said Koepka, a graduate of Cardinal Newman. “I like difficult courses. I can’t compete when it’s 30 under, 25 under every week. That’s not me. I’m not going to go out and shoot 66, 65 every round. Probably why you see U.S. Opens I’m pretty much contending every time, and on the more difficult tracks I seem to do better.”

Jones opened the Honda with a flawless nine-birdie, no-bogey round of 61 a year ago. Ordinarily, a first-round lead doesn’t mean much; Sungjae Im was tied for 63rd after the first round of the Honda in 2020, for example, before going on to win.

But a first-round 61, that’s different. It set the tone.

“It was just one of those rounds where I hit it really well, hit it close on a lot of holes,” Jones said. “I played the par-3′s very well, which is I don’t want to say is key to that golf course, but if you can play them well all week, most often you’re going to have a good tournament.”

He didn’t lead wire to wire — Aaron Wise was three shots clear of Jones after 36 holes, before shooting 75-73 on the weekend. Jones had his three-shot lead back going into Sunday, then won by five.

Sounded easy. It wasn’t. Even with a big lead, Jones didn’t relax until getting to the 17th green Sunday. Such is life at PGA National; that windswept three-hole stretch called the Bear Trap, a nod to Jack Nicklaus, the par-3, par-4, par-3 stretch of holes 15 through 17 that make or break a round, means no lead is safe until basically the very end.

“Anytime you win on the PGA Tour is an amazing feeling,” Jones said. “It doesn’t happen too often for most of us.”

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