Updated: February 26, 2014, 11:32 AM ET

Tiger Woods headlines top-notch field at Honda

By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

>PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- As the PGA Tour heads to Florida, Tiger Woods has one FedEx Cup point -- 1,829 behind leader Jimmy Walker.

Front nine

We're 15 weeks into the PGA Tour season, but for many, it really doesn't begin until now. The traveling circus of golfers has set up shop in South Florida, and that can only mean the Masters is not too far away.

For years, that is how it always played out. Greg Norman and the gang showed up at Doral, and unofficially it was on. Then Woods and Phil Mickelson came along and made the West Coast cool. Torrey Pines, Phoenix, Pebble Beach and Riviera -- some of the best locations on tour -- became prominent again.

Now, not as much.

Blame the wraparound schedule, the growing number of lucrative choices for professional golfers, or perhaps the ebb and flow of player habits.

There are so many good tournaments, so many events that offer huge prize money and a guaranteed payday, that the regular old tour stops have trouble attracting a top-heavy field. The four majors, the four WGCs, the Players Championship and four FedEx Cup playoff events leave room for only a handful of other tournaments, if that.

And so here we are at the Honda Classic, the rare regular tour event that attracts an all-star cast.

The Honda at PGA National is the beneficiary of a premium spot on the schedule. It is sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, the first of which loses half the field before a usual tournament even begins. It makes for a logical place for the stars to show up.

The Honda has -- until next week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral -- the best field of the year to date. Yes, last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship attracted top talent, but three of the stars -- Woods, Mickelson and Adam Scott -- were missing. All three are here at the Honda, and the field has seven of the top nine in the world. (It was eight until Justin Rose withdrew due to a shoulder injury.)

Before last week's Match Play, no tournament on the PGA Tour did better than fielding three of the top 10.

Woods has not played on the PGA Tour since Torrey Pines in January. Scott hasn't played since Hawaii, two weeks prior to Woods' last start in the U.S. Mickelson took the past two weeks off after playing three times on the West Coast, the most of any player among the top six entered here.

Woods and Rory McIlroy live nearby, which certainly helps. So does Lee Westwood. Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell aren't far away in Orlando. And yet, Mickelson is playing this tournament for the first time since 2002.

The field is loaded, and there are all sorts of reasons. Some of them are not good, some lead to the age-old arguments about field strength, what works and what doesn't.

This week, all is right with the golf world. And given the proper circumstances, we could be in for an entertaining month of golf leading up to the year's first major championship.

At the turn
With the start of the Honda Classic on Thursday, it will be just six weeks or 42 days until the first round of the Masters, the first major championship of 2014. Play begins at Augusta National on April 10.

Back nine
He made it to the semifinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, then lost in disappointing fashion when he made a 3-putt bogey from 7 feet on the 16th hole Sunday, falling to Jason Day. But Rickie Fowler hardly left Arizona unhappy.

Rickie Fowler
AP Photo/Matt YorkPrior to his third-place finish at the WGC-Match Play Championship on Sunday, Rickie Fowler's best result in 2014 was a T-33 at the Humana Challenge in mid-January.

Few gave the 25-year-old Fowler a chance of even staying until Thursday when he was going up against match-play stalwart Ian Poulter on Day 1. But Fowler prevailed there, then defeated Walker, Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk to get to the final day. After losing to Day, Fowler defeated Ernie Els in the consolation match.

And considering the young American had missed three consecutive cuts and was outside of the top 50 in the world coming into the Match Play, it was an excellent week. Fowler began working with Butch Harmon in November, and the changes to his golf swing are already taking hold.

"It's been huge," said Fowler, who is in this week's Honda Classic field. "I've been swinging really well. I've been telling people tee to green I've been awesome. The things with Butch that we've been working on have been paying off. Just haven't really been making any putts and getting the balls up and down when we need to.

"I was able to accomplish a few things with the putter and the short game. Finally the things are starting to click, and I think the miscues I had were not because of ball striking."

With his strong showing at the Match Play, Fowler moved from 56th in the world to 38th to earn himself a spot in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, an important development, because playing in the WGCs helps your place in the rankings. Fowler had already qualified for the Masters by virtue of his top-50 showing at the end of 2013, but he now has a much clearer path to get into the U.S. Open.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.