News & Opinion

Thomas injects star power into Honda

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The field for today’s start of the Honda Classic isn’t as good as usual, no doubt about it. Only three of the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking are here.

Clearly this $6.8 million event that has roots on the PGA Tour going back to 1972, when it was known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, is a victim of the new scheduling by the circuit. Maybe four straight weeks of tournaments in Florida in March wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Still, all is not lost for the Honda Classic, an event that has been played under its current title since 1984 and been held at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course at PGA National Resort since 2007.

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Justin Thomas, the defending champion in the Honda Classic, has yet to win this year but brings momentum: 4 top-10 results in 5 starts.

Those three top-ranked players are all in the world’s top 10: defending champion Justin Thomas (3), reigning U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka (4) and 2017 Honda champion Rickie Fowler (9). Thomas and Fowler will play together in the first two rounds – along with Billy Horschel – as the marquee pairing (tee times).

Fowler and Thomas reside in nearby Jupiter. They welcomed the home game, while fellow area residents Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy did not. Johnson was even photographed nearby doing a commercial shoot for a watch company on Tuesday night.

As the champion of last week’s WGC Mexico Championship, Johnson opted for some time off as bigger events such as the Players Championship and Masters draw near. You can’t really criticize Johnson for making that decision, either. I’d call it understandable.

Decades ago, the PGA Tour made an effort to group tournaments geographically to simplify travel plans for the players. Remember the days when – in a three-week period – the Western Open, Greater Milwaukee Open and Quad Cities Classic were played?

In an era of private-jet travel, such scheduling concerns no longer are a factor. Thomas didn’t even accept the suggestion that tournaments scheduled close together might help him “get in a comfortable groove.’’

“I’m probably playing just two [of the four in Florida],’’ he said. “It’s a shame, because this is such a great stretch of golf tournaments. It’s just not possible for us to play all of them.’’

The Honda might suffer the most of them all. Woods and McIlroy already have committed to next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. The Players is, in the eyes of most Tour members, a “fifth major’’ and an event not to be missed. The Valspar Championship, held on an Innisbrook Resort Copperhead course popular with the players, offers dates still allowing for a two-week break before the Masters.

“I know it’s unfortunate for this event,’’ Thomas said. “With this time in the schedule, it had a lot of people that always play that just can’t play this year.’’

Plus, there are no guarantees for 2020.

“There’s so many great tournaments on the PGA Tour the whole season,’’ Thomas said. “At the end of the day, although we have respect for that tournament director, that tournament, that course, that city, whatever it may be, we have to think about ourselves and our bodies. What is going to produce our best golf? That’s what everyone is doing when they’re thinking of their schedule.’’

After playing two starts out West and one in Mexico in the past three weeks, the transition to the East Coast can take a toll, even on a 25-year-old body.

“The hardest part is the time,’’ Thomas said. “Not that it’s ever easy to wake up at 5:30 a.m., but it was really hard to wake up this morning at 5:30 [for an early pro-am tee time]. You’ve got to get used to that, getting your body clock back to where it should be.’’

Thomas won last year’s Honda after he hit a wedge shot to 3 feet for birdie on the 72nd hole and then defeated Luke List in a playoff with birdie on the same par 5. Thomas hasn’t won yet in the 2018-19 season, but he can claim four top-10s in five starts this year.

His only practice round here was in Wednesday’s pro-am, after 5 inches of rain fell in a two-hour period overnight.

“There’s a lot more positives to take from this year than negatives,’’ he said. “I’m very, very close to going on a little bit of a run. I just need to continue to stay patient and wait for good things to happen.’’

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is a golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen