Power Rankings: Honda Classic

By Will GrayFebruary 25, 2014, 2:26 pm

This week marks the 15th event of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, as players move east to start the Florida swing at the Honda Classic. A field of 144 players will tackle PGA National, where the Bear Trap serves as one of the more difficult finishing stretches on Tour.

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Michael Thompson returns to defend the title he won last year by two shots over Geoff Ogilvy. Here are 10 players to watch this week in Palm Beach Gardens:

1. Graeme McDowell: The Ulsterman appeared to have nine lives while staving off elimination last week in Tucson, but his game seems very much in order. McDowell has now begun 2014 with a pair of top-10 finishes and has cracked the top 10 in each of his last three trips to PGA National, including a T-6 result in 2011 behind a closing 64.

2. Rory McIlroy: A winner here in 2012, McIlroy only made it 27 holes last year before his tooth gave out. This time around, the Ulsterman appears to be returning to form, having translated a late-season win in Australia into a successful desert swing last month. While he got bounced early at Dove Mountain, McIlroy has the length to take advantage of PGA National and is likely motivated to make up for last year's early exit.

3. Charl Schwartzel: Like McIlroy, Schwartzel failed to make it past the second round last week in Arizona, but the week prior the South African was T-5 at Riviera after four straight rounds in the 60s. Schwartzel has only made three prior trips to this event, but each has resulted in a top-15 finish, including T-5 in 2012. He's only had one competitive round here higher than 71.

4. Adam Scott: In Scott's only prior start on the Champion Course, he shot 77-82 to miss the cut in 2011. Suffice it to say, things have changed since then. Scott hasn't played since notching back-to-back top-10s in Hawaii, so the Aussie should be well-rested for this week's date with PGA National. While low scores will be hard to come by, an emphasis will be placed this week on consistent ball-striking and the ability to limit mistakes - two factors that should play to his strengths.

5. Keegan Bradley: Despite an early exit last week, Bradley has been one of the more consistent players during the 2013-14 season, with five top-20 finishes in seven starts since October. Bradley is one of many players in this week's field with local ties, living in nearby Jupiter, and has cracked the top 15 each of the past two years at PGA National, including a tie for fourth in 2013. He's broken par on the Champion Course in five of his last eight competitive rounds.

6. Zach Johnson: A first-round exit at Dove Mountain broke Johnson's streak of three straight top-10 finishes, but he remains a name to watch on seemingly any venue. Fresh off his 38th birthday on Monday, Johnson is third in GIR percentage this season and eighth in par-5 scoring average - two keys to the Champion Course. This will be his first start at PGA National since 2008, when he tied for 30th.

7. Tiger Woods: Arguably the greatest enigma in this week's field. Woods is off to his worst start to a season as a pro, but just two years ago nearly caught McIlroy with a Sunday 62. Now a month removed from a disappointing MDF at Torrey Pines, the current world No. 1 will look to get his season on track while staying at home in nearby Jupiter Island. Failed to break par in any of his four rounds last year en route to a T-37 finish.

8. Rickie Fowler: Fowler is hardly the Tour's most consistent player, but will look to capitalize on his third-place finish at Dove Mountain while returning to an event where he has cracked the top 15 each of the last two years. Fowler has missed the cut in his last three stroke-play starts, but showed signs in the desert that his recent swing changes have begun to yield results.

9. Sergio Garcia: Garcia may still have to explain away his puzzling concession to Fowler during his third-round match, but a solid effort at PGA National will go a long way toward putting the controversy behind him. The Spaniard hasn't played here since 2008 but did tie for 13th in 2007, and his strong play across the past five months included a win last month in Qatar.

10. Lee Westwood: Westwood is struggling to find the form that took him to No. 1 in 2010, having lost last week in the first round after announcing a coaching change. Still, PGA National may be just the venue to get him back on track, as the Englishman lives nearby and has finished inside the top 10 in three of the past four years, including a fourth-place showing in 2012.

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”