By Adam Schupak
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Technically speaking, the Bear Trap begins at the 184-yard, par-3 No. 15, the first of three consecutive menacing holes at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion course at PGA National Resort & Spa. But to hear two-time Honda Classic champion Padraig Harrington tell it, the sweaty palms or quake in the pit of the stomach start much earlier.
"I start thinking about it the night before, for sure," Harrington said.
And for good reason. Since 2007, the Bear Trap ranks as the third-toughest stretch on the PGA Tour of courses that have been played in each of the past nine years. Harrington's fear of the 15th is warranted. Water guards the front, the entire right side and rear. A large bunker to the left is a bail-out magnet. No. 15 is so hard that Harrington said, "You hope to miss the short putt on the 14th green so you're not up first on 15. You love to see your playing partners birdie 14. I really mean that; so you get another feel for the hole. Then you've just got to man up and hit the shot."
Harrington has done just that. At 6 under in 23 rounds there dating to 2007, Harrington is the Tour's scoring leader on the 15th hole at PGA National. On Thursday, Scott Stallings did one better, acing the hole with an 8-iron. But that's the exception. Last year, champion Adam Scott took a quadruple bogey on Saturday. No one has hit more balls into the water at 15 since 2007 than Ernie Els, with seven. But Els is nothing if not resilient. He's a combined 5 under in 31 rounds at the 434-yard 16th, which doglegs right and is lined by water down the right side. Harrington actually called 16 "a breather," but try telling that to Ryan Palmer, who is 17 over in his last 29 rounds there.
The pressure ratchets up again at 17, a 190-yard water-laden par 3, for Harrington.
"The problem on 17 now is it's enclosed," said Harrington, who parred his way through the Bear Trap on Thursday. "You really struggle to tell exactly what angle the wind is coming at."
At least Harrington has a fond memory to recall. He stiffed a 5-iron to 3 feet on the 17th on the second playoff hole to win the title in 2015. But the field hasn't been so fortunate. It entered the week a combined 2,781 over par at the Bear Trap dating to 2007, having dunked 1,073 balls into the water over the three-hole stretch.
One of the all-time Bear Trap meltdowns happened when Hall of Famer Raymond Floyd blew a four-stroke lead at the 1994 Senior PGA Championship. He dunked two at 15 and made quadruple bogey, then pumped a 7-iron into the lily pads fronting the green at 17 and made double. Floyd limped home in 42 and sank to a tie for third behind winner Lee Trevino.
But as the leaders vie for the Honda Classic title on Sunday, they can take heart at Jason Bohn's accomplishment. During last year’s second round, Bohn began experiencing chest pains, which were unrelated to the heart-thumping pressure that grips players at the Bear Trap. It turned out that his left anterior descending artery – often referred to as the widow maker – was 99 percent blocked. Back this week with a clean bill of health, Bohn told Nicklaus that he played the Bear Trap in level par "while suffering a heart attack."
"So it's not as hard as he thinks it is," Bohn said.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak