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Florida swing a major test without a major

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Florida swing sets up like a tough series of undercards before the year’s first major championship.

The Florida events are bruisers so formidable a pro risks getting beat up before he even gets to the Masters in April.

It starts with what may be the gauntlet’s toughest test at this week’s Honda Classic at PGA National’s Champion Course.

“This golf course plays like a major tournament, no doubt about it,” said Padraig Harrington, the defending champion. “You’ve got to man up quite a bit out here and hit some tough shots.”

Harrington defeated Daniel Berger in a playoff last year. They were tied at 6 under overall through 72 holes. No regular Tour event was won with a higher score in relation to par last year. In fact, that total was higher than the 18-under Jordan Spieth put up winning the Masters, the 15-under Zach Johnson put up winning The Open Championship at St. Andrews and the 20-under Jason Day put up winning the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Spieth’s 5-under at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay was the only winning score higher than Honda’s in relation to par last year.

“If you can win here [at PGA National], you can win a major,” Harrington said.

And Harrington ought to know. He has won three of them.

“There are a lot of big shots here, just like a major tournament,” Harrington said.

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The WGC-Cadillac Championship wasn’t much easier in the Florida swing than Honda at the redesigned Trump Doral’s Blue Monster last year with Dustin Johnson winning at 9 under, nor was the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course with Jordan Spieth winning at 10 under.

The only respite in the Florida swing came at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with Matt Every winning at 19 under, and that was lowest score at Bay Hill in a dozen years.

“The Florida test is a lot tougher than the West Coast,” said Billy Horschel. “Torrey Pines is a good test and L.A. is a good test, but other than that, the rest of the courses on the West Coast don’t test you as much. You can get away with misses and still play well.

“You come to Florida, and you know you’re going to have to deal with the wind and controlling your ball flight. You know you’re going to have some tough conditions. You have tough courses and tough shots you have to hit.

“It just mentally prepares you [for a major], and it might get you in the right mind frame.”

Spieth looked well prepared for the Masters with his Florida run last year. He won the Valspar Championship and a month later won at Augusta National.

You could argue, though, that the Florida swing might have become too tough.

Before Spieth’s win in Tampa last year, it had been 10 years since a winner in Florida went on to win the Masters. That came in 2005, when Tiger Woods won the Ford Championship at Doral and then went on to win at Augusta National.

Still, Harrington likes the tone PGA National’s Champion Course sets leading off the Florida swing and leading to the Masters. He likes how it requires a toughness of temperament similar to what majors require.

“This is everything a major would be - capable of holding a major - except it’s not a major in name,” Harrington said. “But it’s a big tournament and the best players are turning up ... This is definitely a warm-up in terms of attitude that you need in a major. If you’ve got the skills to win around here, you know you can win on any major golf course.”

Horschel believes PGA National can separate contenders and pretenders, and that’s what majors do.

“You can’t have a whiner’s mentality and play this golf course,” Horschel said. “You can play some really good golf and walk off this course shooting 76. I did it last year. I played in the afternoon on Thursday in some really, really windy conditions and played well, and I shot 5 or 6 over. People might have been thinking, `You didn’t play well,’ but I hit a lot of good shots.”

Anything less than good shots can end up wet through the notorious trio of holes known as the Bear Trap. The 15th, 16th and 17th holes all require forced carries over water, often in high winds.

“This course is really good,” Horschel said. “It tests all aspects of your game. For the most part, you have to be mentally strong since you have to understand there’s going to be stuff you do really well that’s not going to turn out well, due to the wind and everything here.”

The Florida swing can make players believe they need to do more than put up their best games. It can make them feel as if they have to put up their dukes.