PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA National is 530 miles from Augusta National, but it might as well have been a world away Friday.
For the first two rounds of the Honda Classic, players here fought through 30-mph gusts, sailed mis-hits into the water and putted on khaki-colored greens that have only about a 5-o’clock-shadow worth of grass.
And so, Rory McIlroy: Come Sunday, what are you hoping to take away from this event, one of just six tournaments between now and the first major of the year?
“World ranking points, FedExCup points and some cash, hopefully,” he said. “That’s about it. There’s nothing I’ve done over the last two days where I can say, ‘Oh, yeah, that will help at Augusta.’”
That’s problematic, of course, since the road to Augusta begins here, in Florida. This is the time of year that players are trying to fine-tune their games, to protect their confidence at all costs. In that regard, it’s essentially a wasted week of Masters prep.
“It’s Open conditions with U.S. Open scoring,” McIlroy said. “Pretty much the preparation for everything but what we want it to be. It’s probably the furthest thing from Augusta right now around here.”
Which is why players who exited the scoring area on the wrong side of the cut line Friday weren’t overly discouraged. Just the opposite, in fact. They almost looked relieved.
Relieved they wouldn’t have to throw themselves into a wind tunnel for the next two rounds. Relieved they wouldn’t have to restock their bag with golf balls. Relieved they wouldn’t have to putt on some of the worst surfaces they’ll face all year.
Rickie Fowler doesn’t have a negative thing to say about anyone, or anything, and yet even he was critical of the greens here.
“I’ll leave it at everyone is playing the same greens,” he said, smirking.
The course is playing even firmer and faster after a dry month. The TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and set for a re-grassing next summer, but that project seems long overdue. Players described them using adjectives like “crusty” and “spotty” and “dicey.” And those are just the ones we could print.
“The first seven greens on the front nine are really thin, almost like spray-painted sand,” said Luke Donald, who shot 10 over. “It’s a different look and speed to what we’re used to.”
This is Donald’s eighth appearance at PGA National, and he knows the greens fairly well. But the ball has reacted differently this week on chips and pitches. “And putts seem to be breaking differently than what I remember and what’s in my yardage book,” he said.
The Tour didn’t do the players any favors with the setup, either.
Eight of the back-nine hole locations Friday were on the opposite side of the wind direction. That made getting the ball to the hole virtually impossible. And with an easterly wind, the par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17, played almost straight into the fan, making the margins of error even smaller. Seventeen of the first 37 players who teed it up on the 180-yard 17th hole found the water.
Among those was Rory McIlroy, who got ahead of his cut 5-iron and ballooned his tee shot into the pond. He made triple.
“Tried to play the shot that was the right one,” said McIlroy, who shot 73, his seventh consecutive over-par round here. “I just didn’t make a good swing.”
Because of the difficulty of the Champion Course, it’s reasonable to wonder whether McIlroy and others would play the Honda if it weren’t in their backyard, if they didn’t feel an obligation to play their hometown event.
They need tournament rounds under their belt before the Masters, and they have to test themselves under pressure. But what is the benefit of playing in this?
Only four players in the morning wave broke par. The second-round scoring average was more than three shots over par (73.166). The 5-over cut line was the highest on Tour in nearly three years.
And this was a typical South Florida day.
After missing the cut with rounds of 71-76, Fowler was looking forward to spending the weekend in his new indoor simulator, away from the wind. Only then would he be able to tell whether his swing was faulty, or if it’s just a product of the treacherous conditions.
“I was a little bit off,” he said, “and the wind is going to make it look like you’re a terrible weekend golfer.”
Not exactly the confidence boost players need before Augusta.