Tuesday, February 28, 2012
The Bear Trap awaits at Honda Classic
Thursday is just the first day of March, but many of the characteristics of The Honda Classic might make you think it's the middle of June.
After all, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will all be teeing it up this week. Including McIlroy and Woods, the field features 20 different major champions in all. But the most U.S. Open-like trait of the event isn't the field -- it's the course.
The PGA National Champion Course has developed a reputation as one of the most difficult tests on the PGA Tour over the past five years. Last year, it was statistically more difficult than both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open.
Probably the most infamous three-hole stretch on the circuit awaits players closing out their round -- "The Bear Trap." It's just two par-3s and a par-4, but the 15th, 16th and 17th holes can feel like they last a lifetime if a player makes a mistake.
Numbers Game invites you to take a closer look, numerically, at Jack Nicklaus' sinister creation:
• In 2011, The Bear Trap played to its highest average score since the Honda Classic moved to this course six years ago. The field averaged a score of 11.2 over the 3-hole stretch -- more than a full stroke above par. In comparison, that number was just 10.6 back in '07.
• But what about The Bear Trap's teeth compared to those of the rest of the course? Well, per hole, The Bear Trap played to an average score of 0.39 shots above par last year. For the other 15 holes, that number was just .09 -- meaning that each hole of the Trap was, statistically, more than four times harder than the rest of the course last year.
• The Bear Trap can sometimes make all the difference between winning and finishing in second place. Over the past three years, the eventual winner of this event has played The Bear Trap to a score of even par. Runners-up in that same span are a combined 4-over. Last year, Honda Classic winner Rory Sabbatini played the stretch in 1-under. Y.E. Yang, who finished second by a single stroke, played it in even par.
• Last year, the 17th and 15th holes at the PGA National Champion Course ranked as the two most difficult par 3s on the PGA Tour. Combined, they played to an average score of 0.91 shots above par. Relatively speaking, the 16th was a breeze between those two (0.27 shots above par) -- but still ranked among the 50 toughest par 4s on the PGA Tour last year.
• The rest of the course is no picnic, either. Luke Donald's performance at this event in 2008 is a perfect example of that. The current world No. 1 played 15, 16 and 17 in an almost mind-boggling 5-under that year. Unfortunately for Donald, he played the rest of the course in even par. He lost to champion Ernie Els by one shot.
• High numbers are plentiful here. The PGA National Champion Course was home to 309 double-bogeys a year ago. That was the most on the PGA Tour in 2011.
• When you exclude the major championships, The Honda Classic has played as the toughest course on the PGA Tour each of the past two years. Last year, the field averaged a score of more than 2½ shots above par. That was the highest such total for a field in a non-major since Firestone played to an average of plus-2.79 in 2007.
• If a player is going to make some headway, he'll need to do it early. Holes 1 through 4 had a combined birdie or better percentage of 20.7. For the rest of the course, that number was just 11.4. And for The Bear Trap by itself? Eight percent.
Who is the only player to successfully defend his Honda Classic title?
He may have come up a bit short against the blistering-hot Hunter Mahan in Sunday's Match Play final, but Rory McIlroy has been arguably the best player in the world since last year's PGA Championship.
Consider this worldwide résumé since then: 11 starts, 10 top-five finishes, no finish worse than T-11th, a pair of wins and four runner-up finishes. No wonder he's suddenly knocking on Luke Donald's door.
This week, though, presents a test Rory didn't exactly ace a year ago. McIlroy played only one tournament in 2011 in which he failed to shoot par or better in any round. It was at The Honda Classic (73-71-77-75). Rory's final score of 16-over par is five shots higher than any other PGA Tour start in his young career.
So where has Rory struggled most on this course? You guessed it.
Over the past three years, McIlroy is a combined 14-over on holes 15 through 17. He was 6-over alone in the third round last year.
At least he knows he's not alone in his struggle with Jack's trap this week.
Question: Who is the only player to successfully defend his Honda Classic title?
Answer: Jack Nicklaus (1977, 1978). Then it was known as the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic.
Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the new Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.