PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – There’s a crackle in the air here at PGA National’s Champions Course.
With the Honda Classic kicking off the Florida swing this week, with the calendar turning closer to the Masters, the stakes are ratcheting up this season.
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is here, preparing to make his first PGA Tour start of 2015.
Four of the top 10 in the world rankings are in the field, 10 of the top 20.
Europe’s best are turning out in force for the first time in a PGA Tour event this season, with so many top Euros already living in South Florida and with others coming over to prepare for next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.
“It almost feels like the start of a new year,” Robert Garrigus said.
Like the start of the Masters run up with the year’s first major just six weeks away now.
“Everyone kind of realizes how close the Masters is, and everyone’s trying to make sure their game is in tiptop shape,” Brooks Koepka said. “I know I’ve been doing that, trying to prepare, to be ready.”
McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Billy Horschel lead the field.
“This has become a massive event,” Garrigus said. “It’s darn near a major with the way they set up the golf course, and with the way the field is, with so many European guys here carrying a lot of world-ranking points with them.”
Harris English remembers playing the final round of the Honda Classic with McIlroy three years ago, when McIlroy held off a late charge by Tiger Woods. The atmosphere was electric that year, and again last year, when McIlroy sent a roar through North Palm Beach nearly making eagle at the 18th to win, before losing in a playoff.
The Honda Classic field isn’t quite as deep in big-name stars as it has been in its recent years, with Tiger Woods taking time off, plus Adam Scott and Bubba Watson are not in the field.
“It still kind of has a major feel,” English said. “You have a bunch of players getting ready to start playing some big tournaments. As a player, you love seeing all the big names here, having a strong field like this, and playing a golf course that has a championship feel. It gets everyone in that major championship mode.”
PGA National’s Champion Course is a completely different test than Augusta National, but it’s an unforgiving, demanding test nonetheless.
“It’s a great golf course,” Koepka said. “I think the final seven holes out here are some of the toughest finishing holes you will find on any golf course. I’ve played it hundreds of times growing up here, so I feel like I know a lot about it.”
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“The rest of the course is a little bit underrated,” said Russell Henley, the Honda Classic’s defending champion.
While players don’t face the same kind of shots they’ll face at Augusta National, Garrigus said there are shot-making challenges that provide a good Masters prep.
“This golf course is a really tough test,” Garrigus said. “You have to be on point out here, as much as you have to be on point at Augusta. You can’t miss it short, long, right or left, just like Augusta. It’s one of those weeks where you are going to find out where your game is at.”
The game’s going to start getting a better sense of who’s rounding into form for the Masters.