Farewell to the Honda Classic, as we know it.
Despite being one of the few early-season events not to be honoured with elevated status, the Plantation produced a thrilling play-off between an emotional Chris Kirk and mini-tour legend Eric Cole, with Monday qualifier Ryan Gerard finishing fourth on only his second ever PGA Tour start.
Who says you need the top stars to make an event enthralling?
Still, there’s nowt better than having them there, and the increased purse plus the run-in to The Masters sees a field of the highest class assemble at ‘Arnie’s Place’, Bay Hill.
Let’s not mess about, Bay Hill is tough. Rough is penal, greens are often faster than average, all making players worry about their placing rather than their power. Unless you are Bryson DeChambeau, who did this at the par-5 6th hole on his way to victory in 2021:
Of course, few, is any, are going to achieve the ludicrous feat, let alone try it, but the par-5s are essential to making any score around here.
With the short holes longer than the norm, and the par-4s proving tough to negotiate, recent winners have found their scores enhanced only by the par-5s. For example, the defending champ Scottie Scheffler was 12-under for the long holes last year when recording a 5-under total, good enough for a single shot victory; DeChambeau finished 11-under, adding just one shot to his score for the longer holes; Tyrrell Hatton triumphed through horrendous conditions in 4-under, taking advantage of his 6-under par on the fives, and whilst Frani Molinari is a touch of an outlier, previous champion Rory McIlroy has recorded a par-5 average of almost 9-under in eight starts, his average finishing position being just inside the top-10.
Add this to a well of evidence that tee-to-green prowess is vital for victory, and this week’s winner will well deserve the prestigious title, particularly if they survive the forecast winds.
Main Bet – Tyrrell Hatton
Like him or loathe him, Tyrrell Hatton is one player (alongside the likes of Jordan Smith) that should be permanently mic’d up on the course.
He has, of course, exploited the image to the full, being one of the highest-regarded ‘Angry Golfers’, and it’s great fun, showing a personality that many hide on the course.
Away from all that, the 31-year-old is a top class golfer that has graced the world’s top-50 for over seven years straight, and with his clear fondness for windy, Open Championship conditions, it is no wonder he thrives at Bay Hill, site of success for many challengers at the only non- US major.
Hatton’s game is straightforward to read.
The part-time Orlando resident has had six outings at this event, finishing fourth on debut, winning in 2020, and running-up last year. He has an average par-5 score of seven-under, having never recorded worse than six under-the-card.
During his win, Hatton ranked in the top five for tee-to-green, a performance he repeated a year later. To prove his current wellbeing, the selection sits in the top-20 for the season, averaging around 24th for his four outings of 2023.
Key to Hatton is his ability to prove top grade for his driving, allowing him to play approaches away from the rough, and in four of the last five outings (including and since the DP World Tour Championship) he has been listed in the top-12 for accuracy off the peg.
Hatton repeats form at certain tracks. His record at the Alfred Dunhill Links is exemplary – a pair of wins and two second-place finishes – whilst he has five top 10 finishes from nine starts in Abu Dhabi. From nine outings at the DP Worlds, Hatton has two second places and three further top eight finishes, whilst from the same amount of outings around the corner at the Dubai Desert Classic, his record reads three top fives and an eighth.
In form, back to a track he (might) like, and with conditions in his favour, he can continue the great run shown by the likes of fellow UK players Lee Westwood, Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Greg Owen, all of whom finished in the top two in their respective years.
Danger – Scottie Scheffler
Danger – Will Zalatoris
There cannot be more to say about the world number one, Scottie Scheffler.
In the top five for the season’s tee-to-green stats, he ranks number one for ball-striking over three and six months, leading the way for overall driving and greens-in-regulation over 12 weeks.
Plus figures litter his card, with an average tee-to-green number of over 7 for his last five outings, off equally impressive driving and approach stats.
He led the tee-to-green stats here in 2020 when recording 10-under for the par-5s, improving that by one shot a year later, and comes here off a run of 12/1/11/7/9/3, the victory coming as defending champion at Pheonix.
There is a gnat’s hair between the 26-year-old and the flying Jon Rahm, but if conditions worsen as expected, I’d be certain only one of these is made to deal with it.
There may well be a time when Will Zalatoris turns full-on Scheffler. He wins and then wins again. And again.
Surely it is only an injury that paused the progress made in his first couple of years as a professional, a stunning spell that saw him finish in the top six at Winged Foot – his first major – as a rookie, second at Augusta and at Southern Hills last year.
Between his debut on the tour late in 2020 and today, WillyZ has recorded 11 top-10s, four runners-up and his sole win, and last completed start of ’22, at St.Jude last August.
Having had to miss the second half of the season with back issues, it was no surprise to see him take his time reaching top form in 2023, his first three outings (11th in Hawaii, 36th at La Quinta and a missed cut at Torrey Pines) seeming to be a chance to get back to full fitness.
That, he did last time at Riviera, a course he likes based on his previous two outings (26th, 15th) when his tee-to-green game found a bundle, eventually stopping the clock at over +10 strokes.
Two outings here have rewarded Zalatoris with a closing 10th on debut and a disguised 38th here last year, when he was 12th going into Sunday.
Although his putting stroke has its detractors, but he’s at plus numbers for all outings this year and this won’t be a birdie-fest.
He’s just about on the limit for price, but if there is a player ready to storm the golf world, it’s going to be WillyZ.
Others – Rickie Fowler
Like good friend Jason Day, it was only a matter of time before 34-year-old Fowler came back to something approaching his best.
As a five-time PGA Tour winner with 12 top-10 finishes in majors and two European Tour wins, his fall from grace since his victory at the 2019 Phoenix Open has been tough to watch.
From top-10 at Scottsdale, Fowler dropped through the top-100 at the end of 2022, a mixture of factors on and off the course affecting his golf, leading former coach Butch Harmon to comment, “It seems like all the work we did, trying to change the swing to get the left arm up on plane instead of so flat, that he has kind of thrown that out. I don’t really have a chance to talk Rickie very often and haven’t seen him.”
However, since firing much of his team and linking back up with the legendary coach, Fowler has seen things improve month by month.
Starting with a sixth at Silverado and a second place at the Zozo (holding every chance over the weekend), the man in orange has made all four cuts in 2023, starting with a consistent three rounds of 68 at The American Express – perhaps, significantly, as we go into next week’s Players, a Pete Dye course – then finishing 11th at Torrey Pines (55th to ninth place at halfway) 10th at TPC Scottsdale, and a closing 20th at Riviera last time out.
At the last three events – all elevated, and therefore with deeper fields – Fowler has been top-10s for iron play, resulting in progressive tee-to-green figures of 26th, 22nd at 12th.
Last season, when in no real form, Fowler recorded 8-under for the par-5s, some 22 shots better than his effort for the fours, a clear indication that he was struggling.
Currently in 70th and making a steady approach back to the world’s top 50, Fowler may yet fulfil his new old coach’s prediction:
There are really good things in Rickie Fowler’s future that we’re going to see
- Scottie Scheffler WIN
- Will Zalatoris WIN/TOP-5
- Tyrrell Hatton WIN/TOP-5
- Rickie Fowler WIN/TOP-5