Contenders at The Honda Classic have endured hardship
February 29, 2020
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Tommy Fleetwood leads by one shot at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – A trip around PGA National’s Champion course is rarely a smooth one. Pitfalls lurk around every corner.
The same can be said about professional golf careers. Players can compete on the PGA TOUR for decades, but somewhere along the line, they’re likely to suffer through slumps and injuries. Champions are rightly celebrated, but the spotlight blinds us to the ebbs and flows that comprise most careers.
The tightly-packed leaderboard at The Honda Classic is a study in the difficulties that most players endure. The contenders include a major champion and players who once sat atop the world ranking, but they’ve traveled through valleys to get to this moment.
They’re all chasing one of the world’s top players, Tommy Fleetwood, who will take a one-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round. The 29-year-old Englishman, who’s ranked 12th in the world, is seeking his first PGA TOUR victory. He's the only player in the top 20 of the world ranking who's winless on the PGA TOUR.
“It would be a win at a great golf course, a tough golf course, and I think if you're going to win around here, you're proving yourself as an all-around golfer,” Fleetwood said. “I want to win everywhere I play, and the PGA TOUR is for sure one of those places where I haven't done it yet.”
Fleetwood sits at 5-under 205 par after shooting a 3-under 67 on Saturday. Only 11 players broke par in the third round as the wind continued to blow and the greens got firm. And, of course, there’s always the ever-present water that surrounds many of the holes here.
Players have compared this week’s conditions to a major championship. The average score this week is 2-over-par. The difficult setup has kept anyone from pulling away from the field. It’s crowded atop the leaderboard.
Six players will start Sunday within three shots of Fleetwood. Brendan Steele is one shot back, while Fleetwood’s fellow Englishmen, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, trail by two. Three more players – Daniel Berger, Charl Schwartzel and Sungjae Im, the reigning PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year – are three behind.
Steele is the most recent winner in that group, and it’s been more than two years since he lifted a trophy. He won his second consecutive Safeway Open in October 2017. He’s found his game this year after having the worst season of his career in 2019.
“I was feeling good about my game in the fall, but mentally … I had some scars with how I'd been playing and was just worried about how to play golf,” Steele said.
He’s already contended once this year, taking a three-shot lead into the Sony Open in Hawaii before losing in a playoff to Cameron Smith.
Westwood and Donald once traded the top spot in the world ranking, but they’re both looking to end lengthy droughts on the PGA TOUR.
Westwood is having a career resurgence at the age of 46 thanks to a positive outlook and carefree outlet that is well-suited to the challenges of the Champion course. He recently won in Abu Dhabi to return to the top 50 in the world for the first time in nearly three years. It was just his second win on the European Tour since 2015. He’s competing on a sponsor exemption this week.
Donald would like to join him. Injuries limited him to just 21 starts in the previous two seasons. He had just one top-25 in that span, and had to use a career money list exemption to compete on the TOUR this season. He is 456th in the world ranking.
“Lee has obviously proven that age is just a number,” Donald said. “He's been playing great lately. … Just seeing those guys continue to grind and continue to fight and do well, it's nice to see and certainly it motivates me.”
Westwood last won in the United States 10 years ago. Donald, a five-time winner on TOUR, hasn’t won since 2012.
Schwartzel, 35, and Berger were sidelined by wrist injuries. Schwartzel’s injury, which forced him to sit out from May to December last year, had him questioning if he’d be able to continue his career. The former Masters champion hasn’t won anywhere in the world since the 2016 Valspar Championship.
Berger, 26, won the FedEx St. Jude Classic in 2016 and 2017 but is winless since. He’s arrived at his hometown TOUR event after finishing in the top-10 in his previous two starts.
“It's funny because I never thought I went anywhere other than just being a little bit injured,” Berger said. “I feel good about my golf game, and I feel good about heading into tomorrow, and another good round and I'll have a chance to win.”
Even Fleetwood has endured difficulty in his young career. He won the Challenge Tour’s Order of Merit at age 20, but won just once in the next five years. He fell outside the top 150 in the world ranking in 2016 but rebounded to win the European Tour’s Race to Dubai the following year. He’s been a fixture among the game’s elite since.
The difficulty of this week’s venue, and the crowded leaderboard, will make it easier for players to focus on the task at hand instead of the roads they’ve travelled to get here.
“At no point does the golf course let up,” Fleetwood said. “No matter what happens, whether you make eagle all the way through double-bogey, you have to stand up on the next and hit a golf shot.”
One man will be left standing Sunday. He’ll have endured his share of hardship to get to the winner’s circle.