Don't get trapped at Honda Classic

March, 1, 2010

Trivia question

Y.E. Yang is your defending champion this week at the Honda Classic. Yang was the second South Korean ever to win on the PGA Tour, joining K.J. Choi. How many different South Korean women won on the LPGA Tour just in 2009 alone? (Answer below.)

The PGA Tour begins the first part of its Florida swing this week at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. Since the Honda Classic moved to the venue in 2007, it has played as one of the toughest stops on the PGA Tour.

In each of the past three seasons, it has ranked as one of the nine toughest courses for the entire year, playing to nearly 1.4 shots above par in '09, the seventh-highest total of any course and fourth-highest in non-majors.

There is a sliver of breathing room amid those spooky numbers, though. As you can see, the course has actually played easier for the past two years in terms of average score to par. The winner's score has dropped, too: The quartet in 2007 who made the playoff played the first 72 holes in 5-under, Ernie Els won at 6-under in 2008, and Y.E. Yang won with a score of 9-under last year.

Lurking at the end of the Jack Nicklaus-redesigned PGA National is the infamous "Bear Trap" -- holes 15, 16 and 17. The trio is one of the most treacherous stretches in all of golf, with two of the three holes playing among the 28 most difficult on the tour in all of 2009.

The par-3 15th hole saw birdies by less than 7 percent of the players who teed it up at last year's Honda Classic. The relative reprieve of the three holes, No. 16, is a 434-yard par-4 that played to an average score of 4.168 last year.

The 17th played as the eighth-hardest hole on the entire PGA Tour in 2009, and the hardest among all par-3s, averaging plus-0.395 strokes above par. There were only 27 birdies made there as opposed to 45 double-bogeys or worse in 2009.

Whereas the course as a whole has gotten slightly easier over the past three years, Nos. 15 and 17 have actually gotten more difficult.

In 2007, the par-3 15th played to an average of 3.150, while the par-3 17th was at 3.238. Those numbers, and their ranks among the most difficult par-3s on tour, went up dramatically in '08 and '09.

How have the eventual winners fared at the Bear Trap since the event was moved to PGA National? None got out of the final-round Sunday unscathed: Yang bogeyed both 15 and 17 last year, yet hung on to beat John Rollins by a shot. Els bogeyed 17 in '08, and Mark Wilson bogeyed 15 in 2007.

Eagles are nearly impossible to come by on this course. Last year's Honda Classic saw just seven eagles for the entire event. Only East Lake GC (home of the Tour Championship) had fewer eagles on the PGA Tour in 2009 among courses that were played for an entire event. Just five courses all year had fewer than 10 eagles carded in 2009.

Y.E. Yang won his first PGA Tour event at the Honda last year -- a precursor to his shocking defeat of Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship. One amazing fact about the Honda is that it has served as a precursor to major championship success throughout its history.

Since 1990, five different winners of the tournament have gone on to later win a major championship in their careers. Twice, the winner has gone on to win a major in the same year.

It also happened four other times: Mark Calcavecchia won his first in 1987, two years before winning the Open Championship. Curtis Strange won in '85, three years before winning the '88 U.S. Open. Tom Kite won in 1981 and won the U.S. Open 11 years later, and 1979 Honda champ Larry Nelson won the first of his three majors in 1981.

Four of the world's top 10 players are in the field this week, and none of them are Americans. Lee Westwood (No. 4), Paul Casey (No. 6), Rory McIlroy (No. 9), and Padraig Harrington (No. 10) all will be teeing it up at PGA National. Overall, the field is pretty strong this week -- 15 different major champions who have combined for 23 major victories. However, it's interesting to note that the highest-ranked American in the field is Anthony Kim, who's currently 30th.

An item looking back: Rookie Rickie Fowler seemed to have leader Hunter Mahan in his sights Sunday, standing in the par-5 15th fairway, one shot back after making birdies at 13 and 14. But Fowler laid up, opting instead to try to catch Mahan on the course's final three holes.

Trivia answer

Question: Y.E. Yang is your defending champion this week at the Honda Classic. Yang was the second South Korean ever to win on the PGA Tour, joining K.J. Choi. How many different South Korean women won on the LPGA Tour just in 2009 alone?

Answer: Eight, led by Jiyai Shin, who won three times.

Fowler had played Nos. 16-18 in 1-under for the week to that point, with birdies at 17 on Thursday and 16 on Friday. It's likely that the Oklahoma State product had the raucous 16th specifically in mind when planning his route of attack. After all, Fowler stuck his approach Saturday to inside 5 feet, and his average approach shot distance to the pin at 16 was 11 feet, 4 inches for the week, his closest of any hole at TPC Scottsdale.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008, and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to





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