With the Honda Classic featuring the strongest field of the young PGA Tour season, golf fans were stoked for a fantastic tournament. We got a fantastic tournament, but not the one we expected.
Seven of the world's top nine golfers were on hand at PGA National. Woods! Scott! Mickelson! McIlroy! By late Sunday, that dream foursome had turned into: McIlroy! Palmer? Henley? Knox?
Eighth-ranked Rory McIlroy led from Thursday till the back nine on Sunday. Then he sagged to an inward 38, allowing others back into contention, notably playing partner Russell Henley, veteran Ryan Palmer and unheralded Russell Knox.
Any of them could've won in regulation, but blunder after blunder after blunder left the Twittersphere in amazement. McIlroy, the 2012 Honda champion, rinsed his approach on No. 16, the middle hole of the famed Bear Trap, for double bogey. Knox, on 14, and Henley, on 15, also had spectacular water balls. Two more double bogeys. The only one who stayed dry was Palmer, barely; instead, the three-time Tour winner just cleared the water with this third shot on the par-5 18th, only to land in the rough and bogey the easiest hole on the course. He missed a four-footer. Gah.
Nearly overshadowing the gag-fest was a cajones-laden shot by McIlroy on the 556-yard 18th. He laced a 5-wood from 236 yards, over water, to 11 feet and the ball just stopped - "That thing came down like a sand wedge!" Johnny Miller marveled on TV. So with a chance for eagle to win the tournament and avoid a playoff with the other three R's, McIlroy missed. Arrrgh. (Pardon, but I own McIlroy in the Rotowire Golf League.)
McIlroy's Sunday 4-over-74 was a far cry from his opening 63 and left him and the others at 8-under. Of the four, only Palmer broke par on Sunday, a 1-under 69.
The playoff was a bit of a letdown, lasting only one hole and ending when Henley birdied 18, the same hole where he had badly flubbed a chip 20 minutes earlier. It was the second career win for the Ricky Schroeder lookalike, having captured the Sony Open last year.
It was also a huge win for Knox, by far the biggest payday for the 28-year-old Scot whose previous best finishes were a pair of T9s in the 2012 Fall Series. He made a 9-footer for par on 18 just to get into the playoff. Afterward, @rooknox tweeted: "Thank you very much for all the great messages. Almost did it. More importantly, I found I can. Awesome course."
What does it mean McIlroy? Who knows? For three and a half days, he was lapping the top names in this stellar field and appeared to be all the way back from his disappointing 2013 season, one that included him walking off this very same PGA National course. He withdrew after 26 holes with a "toothache" that he later admitted was anything but. It was an embarrassment he still regrets.
We'll see how he responds this week, when an even stronger field is entered in the WGC-Cadillac Championship - the top 50 in the world will be at Doral's revamped Blue Monster. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Tiger Woods tees it up. The world No. 1 and 2013 Cadillac champion withdrew from the Honda after 13 holes on Sunday, citing a recurrence of his ongoing back issues. We likely won't know until late Wednesday or Thursday whether Woods can go. Either way, this was another in a growing list of poor outings for him, with the Masters now less than six weeks away.
The other top-ranked names in the Honda field had varying degrees of success: No. 2 Adam Scott (T12), No. 3 Henrik Stenson (cut), No. 5 Phil Mickelson (cut), No. 7 Zach Johnson (T33) and No. 9 Sergio Garcia (T8).
For what it's worth, Palmer entered the week ranked 77th, Henley 110th and Knox 206th.
Billy Hurley III
When Hurley took the clubhouse lead at 7-under after a stellar 70-67-67-69 week, not in his wildest imagination did he think he'd miss the playoff by a shot. Still, the former U.S. Naval Academy lieutenant drove off with the second-best check of his career (though he's still behind Davis Love and Charles Howell in the pecking order of IIIs, but ahead of Harold Varner III. And also ahead of Frank Lickliter II).
Following a six-week vacation, Scott turned in a solidly quiet tournament. He was never really in contention, but with three rounds in the 60s, he closed to a T12 finish. It's all about gearing up to defend his Masters title, continuing with the Cadillac Championship this week.
Oh, Phil. Mickelson still has zero top-10s this season (on the other hand, so does Tiger). He hadn't played the Honda in years, since before the tournament moved to PGA National, and he missed the cut by 1. It's now off to Doral, but like Woods and Scott, it's all about the majors for Mickelson, especially the U.S. Open. Who knows whether his back problems are still with him.
MacKenzie suddenly finds himself 21st in the FedEx Cup standings, following his third top-10 of the season. He shot a steady 67-68-69-70 for a 6-under total, good for a tie for sixth. Combined with a T7 at the Farmers and T9 at the season-opening Frys, MacKenzie is formulating his best PGA Tour season. He already has seven top-25s and almost $1 million in earnings.
Garcia has played only four PGA Tour events this season, and his worst finish is T11. On Sunday, he equaled the best round of the day, 67, to move up 34 spots on the leaderboard and tie for eighth. And, as far as we know, he didn't concede any holes to anybody.
There's been a Luke Donald sighting! Donald, who didn't make a 2014 PGA Tour appearance until last week, when he got thumped, 5-and-4, by Matteo Manassero in the Match Play Championship, also tied for eighth, with a 67-68-68-72 week. He's fared well in the Cadillac Championship, with twin T6s in 2011 and 2012.
There's really been a Paul Casey sighting! The Englishman, via a sponsor's exemption, wound up tied for 12th, his best finish on the PGA Tour since 2011. Formerly No. 3 in the world and a three-time Ryder Cupper, Casey has battled injuries, but this clearly shows he is regaining his game.