He’s a hard man not to like, is Bubba Watson. He speaks his mind and does things his own way, but boy can he play golf when he wants to. He certainly proved it last week at the Northern Trust Open, where he saw off the challenges of the likes of Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, KJ Choi and 90/1 shot Jason Kokrak to seal the ninth PGA Tour title of his career.
And so it’s a well earned week off for Watson as the tour rolls on to Florida for the Honda Classic, a money-rich tournament (the winner nets more than $1 million) which has, unsurprisingly, attracted a stellar field once again.
Rory McIlroy will take up the mantle of bookmaker’s favourite, and he certainly has a chance given that he won this event in 2012 and just missed out in a play-off to Padraig Harrington last year.
But there’s something missing from the Irishman’s game at the moment, and a fragility that has meant he has struggled to get over the line. A final round of 75 last week when well placed is evidence of that. And so his price of 11/2, in a quality 100+ field, looks hopelessly short. As ever, bold statements like that are prone to come back and haunt us, but there really is little evidence to suggest McIlroy will be in the winner’s enclosure come Sunday evening.
Instead, our two outright picks are two gentlemen who have enjoyed strong 2016 campaigns to date, are multiple-time winners and have a history of taming this often uncompromising course and set of conditions.
Rickie Fowler (13/1 each way)
With a tournament win and three top-5 finishes already under his belt in the 2016 season, few can claim to be striking the ball as well as Rickie Fowler at the moment. In fact, if you take away a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open then it’s hard to imagine a better opening few months of a campaign, relatively speaking.
Fowler has already laughed in the face of those who suggested his 2012 triumph at Wells Fargo was a one-off, with two wins in 2015 confirming this enfant térrible’s status as a contender at events big and small.
A downward curve of 7-13-24-41 in this tournament may put some punters off, but there’s nothing to fear: Fowler has never played golf this consistently good at any other point in his career. You would have to fancy him to breach the top 10 here at the absolute minimum.
Phil Mickelson (22/1 each way)
Old leftie has found a little something. His record in 2016 reads 3-11-2 (plus a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open), and marks a return to form for a player who looked a little off the pace at times last season.
Mickelson is beloved by each way punters for his ability to go close in events at any given time – 178 career top ten finishes speaks volumes – and a ratio of 75% top ten and 50% top three finishes in four tournaments entered thus far in 2016 is pleasing on the eye.
Golfers tend to thrive on happy memories, and we only have to rewind a single year to see the love that Mickelson has for the Honda Classic. Having missed the cut at the two preceding tournaments, Leftie came to Florida low on confidence. But he played 72 holes of solid, no frills golf to finish 17th, and that led to a run of top 20 finishes that culminated in a tie for second at The Masters. Knowing that he comes into this week’s event in much better touch is cause for betting hubris.
Russell Knox – Top Ten Finish (4/1)
Second and third: that’s how Russell Knox’s record reads in the Honda Classic in ’14 and ’15. Nobody quite enjoys the undulations and curves of the PGA National course quite like this amiable Scot.
His form in 2016 is something of a mixed bag: 21-1-2-27 culminating in two missed cuts at the Sony Open and AT&T Pebble Beach. But Knox skipped the Northern Trust Open to prepare specifically for this tournament; and he could well go close once again.
Camilo Villegas – Top Twenty Finish (7/1)
Having lifted the winner’s trophy here in 2010, and taking the silver medal in 2007, it’s fair to say that this is a tournament the Colombian bomber enjoys immensely.
He ended strongly last year with 67 and 68 to finish in the top twenty, and after a first round of 63 at the Northern Trust Open he’s clearly feeling good about his game, despite fading away to finish 37th there.
A career haul of 71 top-25 finishes suggests this is a man who can mix it in good company.