PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Who hijacked the Champion Course?
Who snuck into PGA National earlier this week and changed the Champ out for the Plantation Course at Kapalua? Or Torrey Pines North?
Or, more importantly, who turned off the fans?
Everything has gone right to keep the scores low in the final year of the event known as the Honda Classic. The combination of clear skies and calm winds, the removal of several bunkers, and suddenly you have a scoreboard full of red numbers.
The final day will start with 57 golfers under par. A year ago, 15 finished under par.
What’s the opposite of the perfect storm? The perfect serenity? The perfect calmness?
Last year, the Champion Course was the seventh-toughest on the PGA Tour, playing to an average of 1.341 over par. This year, it’s been more than a stroke easier, which doesn’t sound like much but is a big deal.
“Target practice,” is how leader Chris Kirk described the course after shooting a 62 Friday.
And once you hit that target … “The greens are a little more receptive this year, said Andrew Miller, a PGA Tour rules official and the Honda tournament referee who arrived about two weeks ago to help set up the course.
“They’re not as firm as what we started the week last year. It was pretty firm.”
Billy Horschel is playing his 11th Honda since it moved to PGA National. In his previous 10, he was a combined 28-over par, including missing the cut four times.
Horschel is 4 under entering the final day.
“The course is really receptive,” he said. “It’s not nearly as firm and as fast as it has been in the past. I think that’s sort of a conscious thing they have done.”
Certainly there is something to that. Before we get into the weather gods finally looking down favorably upon Honda, changes were made on the Champion Course to make this a bit more forgiving.
Changes to PGA National Champions Course helped scores
Bunkers were removed on Nos. 6, 10 and 16. The bunker to the left of the par-3 17th hole was cut in half.
The most significant change was to the 479-yard par-4 No. 6, the toughest hole on the course — and 15th-toughest out of 900 holes on the Tour in 2022 with an average of 0.378-over par.
This year, two of the bunkers on the right side of the fairway were removed. With water along the entire left, that’s a big deal.
And the best stat of week comes from No. 6.
Since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007, one eagle was made in 6,914 rounds at the hole entering this year: Curtis Thompson in 2022.
That number was doubled … in two days.
Aaron Wise and Andrew Landry duplicated the feat. Wise holed out from 179 yards Thursday and Landry one-upped him, doing the same from 194 yards Friday.
“It set up very well this year,” Shane Lowry said about the course. “It’s in great condition. There will be mistakes made, but it’s important just to make as few mistakes as possible and make as many birdies as possible when you get the chance.”
And birdies have been made. An average of close to 390 per day. A year ago, an average of 316 birdies were recorded each day.
As for 17, the hole is playing slightly easier this year. Those shots out the bunker with a watery grave beckoning on the other side of the green have been reduced.
“That 17th hole is pretty darn hard and there’s really nowhere to miss it,” Miller said. “You still have that collection area. It’s still a pretty difficult shot. It’s definitely not a layup simply because we made the bunker smaller. It’s still a really, really hard hole.”
But Miller hit on the primary factor why golfers are having a much more enjoyable time on their 7,125-yard stroll this weekend.
Where did the wind go?
“The wind is a huge factor,” he said. “Normally we do get significant winds here.”
Anybody who’s had to chase their straw hat halfway down the ropes knows what Miller is talking about. A typical day at Honda is a 15- to 20-mph wind with many days gusting more than 25 mph. Saturday, the winds were 4- to 8-mph.
“You’ve got to be so precise on this course, and when it’s blowing 15, 20 miles an hour that’s really hard to do,” defending champion Sepp Straka said after his 66 Saturday. “The wind being down a little bit just makes it a little more scorable.”
That’s not to say at times we didn’t get a glimpse of the good Ol’ Champ us duffers have all come to love during Honda week.
Akshay Bhatia removing his shirt, shoes and socks Saturday before rolling up his pant legs and then nearly being swallowed by the mud in back of the 15th green. It took two shots to get out of the swampy mess.
Adam Long taking two whacks from the water on No. 11 before finally taking a drop.
Padraig Harrington pulling out a raincoat on Thursday to hit his second shot on No. 17 from the water.
But those moments, at least for one year, were rare. As rare as one of our world-class golfers actually taking the time to play the Honda Classic.