Final-round preview and best bets for the Honda Classic

Stuck in the schedule between two brackets of certain events, the field for this week’s Honda Classic with the top 30 performers in the world was slim and murmurs could be heard – from those who feared the long-term effects of a staggered PGA Tour, from the naysayers , whose attention is only held by the stars and stir-fryers wondering what Greg Norman was thinking.

With 18 holes to play, only one big name remains in the pursuit of the title, a situation that seems to confirm the fears of the doubters and cynics – and yet this Sunday is likely to be a special one for so many golf fans with a number of players whose backstories provide the fascination that draws them to this exasperating but also redeeming sport.

Leading the way is Chris Kirk, two points clean with 13-under 198 after rounds of 69-62-66. He’s a four-time PGA Tour winner, but his story is far from linear. Back in 2019, he took six months off from gaming to deal with alcohol abuse and depression.

The following year he clinched a win at the Korn Ferry Tour in Florida, but in early 2021 he needed a top-3 result at the Sony Open due to a medical exemption to retain his card – he finished second with a tie. He finished second on 18, 36 and 54 holes in this tournament last year before finishing seventh and opening 2023 with top-three finishes at the Sony Open and The American Express.

As a sluggish hitter who has threatened to win the two major Florida titles (THE PLAYERS Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational), he has plenty of goodwill behind him and looks to these recent performances rather than wins for encouragement. “I didn’t win either Sony or Amex,” he said last night. “But I felt like I played really great and felt pretty comfortable in that situation in the Heat. If I just keep going and doing my job, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be any different this time.”

He has the tools to win this but 11/10 is a bit close for me.

Standing behind him is Eric Cole, a 34-year-old rookie, and these few words tell little of his story. He is the son of Bobby Cole and Laura Baugh, the former a South African phenomenon who never achieved what his early endeavors suggested, the latter a former LPGA darling. Cole himself has won over 50 titles on mini tours and has been to the Q School 11 times. His T15th last time at Pebble Beach was his first PGA Tour top 20. It’s staggering.

Can he put all that winning experience to good use? “It’s the same, but it’s different,” he admitted. “It’s a bigger stage and all, but the golf ball doesn’t know the difference.” However, the man hitting the ball does. He’s the second favorite at 5/1 and I’d wish for more for a lad facing such a big opportunity.

Justin Suh is third alone at 10-under. A former world No. 1 amateur turned pro alongside Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, he has always had to grapple with his inability to keep up with this trio. He won the Korn Ferry Tour Championship last September, but T20th at the Farmers Insurance Open is his best tournament yet. Another player is in for a big day, he’s 15/2 and I’d want more again.

Ben Taylor shares fourth place in 9-under with Shane Lowry and the Florida-based Brit is feeling comfortable. “This is my home,” he said. “It’s the climate I’ve gotten used to best and I like to play in. My fiancé, family, friends, members of the club – I have them all out there looking forward to a fun weekend.”

He has finished in the top four at the Houston and Sony Opens this season, both times going into the last round with a second-place share. “It’s not new anymore,” he insisted. “I think that will help settle nerves over the weekend.” He is the least favorite of the top five at 18/1.

My gaze, however, is drawn to the man next to him – SHANE LOWRY

The Irishman was second last year and was unlucky to experience a bizarre little spell of raging wind and heavy rain on the final hole. Addressing those memories on Wednesday, he said: “Obviously it was very disappointing. I had a two shot lead with five shots to play and didn’t feel like I did much wrong.”

It was a bittersweet memory though, as he added: “I remember it sparked a consistent run. That gave me a lot of confidence for the coming year.”

There are some who would turn their noses up at returning to the scene of such a blow, but not Lowry. “Historically and generally I like hard golf,” he said. “I don’t like it when you win under 25. When I get a course like this I feel like I want to play and I feel like I can compete here.

He shared the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi earlier this year but crashed with a Sunday 76 on T28th and missed his next two cuts. He found his form at the Genesis Invitational (T14th), and there’s a reason for that: “My coach came out and noticed I was a little off with my alignment on my setup. It resulted in bad recordings. My iron game was pretty good for a while so it was a shock to the system. It’s nice to get it back.”

His final round strategy? He takes the Nicklaus route: “Hopefully if I can just hang around all day I can give myself a chance to get down the track.”

He also plays for his uncle Jimmy, who passed away Thursday morning. “A very sad week for our family and to be honest I wanted to go home on Thursday when I heard the news,” he said last night.

“A lot of people talked me out of it. I play for him, his wife, his kids, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts and everyone at home because we are a very close family. Everyone keeps telling me how proud they’ve been of me over the last few years and hopefully I can make them proud. He was just a great man, great madness, and I loved him.”

Motivated in many ways, ready to push hard, with a refined swing and happily falling asleep in his own bed this week, he’s the top pick at Unibet at 13/2.

Posted at 0955 GMT on 26/02/23

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *