PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – If you were combing through weekly scores looking to find Shane Lowry’s name during the PGA TOUR’s seven-event West Coast Swing, it wasn’t that somebody had forgotten to type it. He wasn’t injured, either.
Lowry, the 2019 Open champion from Ireland, simply was waiting for the TOUR to swing east. Welcome to the 2022 Florida Swing, home of tropical breezes, swaying palms, fruity umbrella drinks … and, if tradition holds up, much more difficult scoring. Yes, tougher. Grittier. Just the way Lowry prefers it.
“I’m happy we’re in Florida,” Lowry said on Tuesday at PGA National, home of the Honda Classic. “It’s harder here, and that’s why I like it. That’s why I wasn’t on the West Coast. I don’t particularly like fast Poa annua greens, and now that I live here (as a U.S. base), I’m used to the grass.
“It seems like a bit of a trend the way that golf is going at the minute where you have to be 20 under to win … I’ve won tournaments where I’ve been well under par, but my better finishes seem to be on the tougher golf courses.”
When the wind is blowing hard – and it is forecast to blow in double-digits (mph) during competition days at the Honda – the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course at PGA National can be an absolute bear. On the heels of a West Coast Swing in which there was little wind and some incredible scoring – the average winning total was better than 21 under par – the change in mentality can be abrupt. The tone for going low was established at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where three players fired 32 under or better, with Australia’s Cameron Smith winning at 34 under, a tournament record.
Florida proved to have some of the tougher PGA TOUR tests of the 2020-21 season. PGA National (Honda) ranked sixth most difficult, at 1.102 shots per round over par; Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational) was ninth, at +1,015; TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course (THE PLAYERS) ranked 16th (+ .421); and Innisbrook’s Copperhead (- .036), home to the Valspar, was 20th.
Bob Rotella, renowned sports psychologist, said Tuesday that after friendly scoring conditions on the West Coast, the Florida Swing “is like a different ballgame.” At PGA National’s Champion, there is plenty of trouble for players to find. Rotalla said players start thinking about the more difficult and demanding test days before the event even begins.
“I think the first thing that you start thinking now is more patience, a lot more course management and strategy,” Rotella said, standing behind the practice tee. “It starts to get in your head already, out here, that hey, I don’t have to birdie every hole.”
Rotella said competing on a more stringent test can pose an interesting road to choose for a player on a hot run. Does one really go after the golf course and try going crazy low, as champion Matt Jones did a year ago in his opening-round 61? Or does a player stick to a conservative game plan?
“I tell guys, you want to be conservative and patient … but sometimes magic happens,” he said, “and when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. That’s the challenge. You’ve got to get your mind ready to shoot low, even here.”
The Champion plays to a par of 70, and a year ago, Jones finished at 12-under 268, winning by five shots. Only one other time since Rory McIlroy won at 12 under in 2012 has a winner reached double-digits under par at Honda (Rickie Fowler, 12 under, 2017).
“I always say, if I shoot 69 and I come in and I’m happy, then I like that golf course,” Lowry said. “I like the way that golf course sets up. I don’t like shooting 68 or 69 and feeling frustrated.”
Jones said to reach his winning score a year ago, pretty much everything in his game was working. This season, he has struggled with the putter, and has missed five cuts in 11 starts. He knows he needs to putt better, for sure, but a player need not necessarily putt great to win at PGA National.
“It’s definitely a ball-striking golf course this week, and that’s what I did great last year when I was here,” Jones said. “I hit my irons great, I drove it phenomenal, and everything was working for me. I’m chipping great. If I do miss a green, my short game is really good right now.”
At Honda, the greens are firm and there’s more rough than players have seen in a while, so distance control can be a challenge. Adding to the difficulty is the presence of so many penalty areas for offline shots, even before a player gets to the 15th tee and the daunting three-hole Bear Trap.
“You know that (shooting) 1 under or 2 under means something around here,” said Hudson Swafford, who captured The American Express in Palm Springs last month. “I get a smile on my face, because this is the grass (Bermuda) that I grew up on. When par means something, it makes for a good week.”
Jones’ key thought when he goes to tee it up on Thursday: Don’t be overly aggressive. Exercise patience, because even in the windiest conditions, there will be birdie opportunities.
“Don’t turn a bogey into a double out here,” Jones said. “It’s so easy to have a big number on this golf course … It’s a very stressful course from the get-go.”