PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – How grueling is the Champions Course?
There’s a growling bear standing on his hind legs waiting for you on the 15th tee, for crying out loud. And that’s just one ominous beast players have to deal with during the Honda Classic at PGA National.
Add in roaring winds, penalizing water hazards, skeleton fairways and firm greens, all combing to potentially spoil of a good walk. For even the best players in the world, the Champions Course can be as painful as getting a root canal.
Which begs the question? Can PGA Tour players actually have fun playing vicious tracks than can batter and bruise their minds and souls?
“It’s a different type of fun,” 2016 Honda winner Adam Scott said. “You have to be very prepared mentally to have fun. That might be the answer for anyone doing well this week. As much as you need to physically play well out here, you need to be really mentally prepared because it’s going to beat you up even playing well.
“It is a different kind of fun, but it’s that fun challenge, so I might try and think about that the next 24, 48 hours and have some fun come Thursday.”
The Honda Classic is the last of the four tournaments that make up the Florida Swing and it certainly hasn’t been an easy journey through the Sunshine State. There have been plenty of wrecks and pileups starting with The Concession in Bradenton, which is nicknamed The Concussion and played host to the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship and featured plenty of H2O to avoid and confusing greens to figure out.
Then it was on to Bay Hill in Orlando, which annually plays host to the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Thick, high rough, thin fairways, water on eight of the 18 holes are the course’s multiple signatures.
Then last week players dealt with Pete Dye’s diabolical Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, which yearly is home to The Players Championship, the Tour’s flagship event. Water comes into play on 17 of the 18 holes there, and any one shot can lead to a double bogey and right quick, especially on the 17th where an island green is but 135 yards away.
And now we have the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champions Course at PGA National that features the Bear Trap, a three-hole stroll down a dark alley.
Only three players will go through the entire Florida fearsome foursome swing – defending Honda Classic champion Sungjae Im, reigning Open Championship winner Shane Lowry and Lee Westwood, who finished runner-up at Bay Hill and TPC Sawgrass.
“I personally like the challenges on the Florida Swing,” Im said. “I know all the players will be struggling, including myself, but I try to have fun playing through the challenges. I tend to play well overall when the courses are more challenging.
“So yes, it is fun.”
Im must have had a blast last year in the Honda Classic. Excluding the major championships, his winning score of 6 under was the highest winning score in relation to par on the Tour since the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open. And last year, 66 was the lowest score of the week, which marked the first non-major on the PGA Tour since 1996 without any players shooting 5 under or better in any round.
Still, Westwood, who has been on a roll the last two weeks, said fun can be had.
“I don’t think you need to be dictated to by how many birdies you make to have fun. I have fun at the U.S. Open,” he said. “When it’s a grind and pars mean a lot, I feel like I enjoy it just as much as when the winning score is 20-under.
“Yes, it’s definitely possible to have fun around here.”
Well then, Padraig Harrington must be a glutton for punishment. The European Ryder Cup captain won the Honda in 2005 and then again in 2015 and relishes every opportunity he puts the peg into the ground at the Champions Course.
“This is a strange statement, but I’d like to play tournament golf on a course like this every week,” he said. “I know it would beat you up eventually. If you play all four rounds here and get in contention, you’ll be tired on Sunday evening because you’ve got to pay attention at all stages out here. There’s plenty of trouble that can not only ruin a round but ruin a tournament in a very quick couple of shots.
“I like the course a lot.”