The expansion of the European Tour to make it global except for the PGA Tour in the United States is getting ridiculous. The Oman Open offers one of the smallest prize funds of the season which explains why the favourite, Joost Luiten, is at number 71 in the world rankings and the highest ranked player in the field. Europe’s best players have deserted their home tour to play for more money, in better fields and in front of more fans in the United States. This week’s Honda Classic offers four times as much prize money as the Oman Open.
There are four Europeans in the top 10 of the current world rankings and Europe won the Ryder Cup last September. However, other than the Open Championship and to a lesser extent the PGA Championship most of the winning Ryder Cup team will not be playing too often on the European Tour this season. This week’s event in Omar has been marketed by saying the field contains a major champion and Ryder Cup player. Paul Lawrie did win the Open in 1999 and has played in the Ryder Cup but when he is your headline attraction you are in a bit of trouble.
The bread and butter players may welcome a low grade tournament that offers a two year exemption to the winner. However, this week’s event in Oman is little more than a Challenge Tour event with a sprinkling of Asia’s better players. Selecting potential winners is fraught with danger in the second renewal of the event. Luiten is the defending champion and is proven on the course. On rankings he is the best player in the field so he must have a great chance of winning the tournament again.
By contrast to the tournament in Asia the field for the Honda Classic contains two players from the top four in the world rankings and another player in the top 10. Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler head the betting followed by Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia. Granted there is little strength in depth after these players but the first prize is almost $1.2 million. The winner also gets a two year exemption but for the PGA Tour which is much more lucrative than any of the others.
The Honda Classic is the first leg of the Florida Swing which is characterised by windy conditions. However, the forecast suggests still weather this week and scoring should be relatively high. The regular host course is PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens. It’s a par 70 track that produced a scoring average of over 72 last year which is the highest compared to par for any non-majors in the last two years. The degree of difficulty goes up in wind but calm conditions are expected.
However, the fast undulating greens will still provide a tough test and hitting the putting surfaces in the correct number of shots will be an important skill. The last three winners are Thomas, Fowler and Scott with scores of 8, 12 and 9 under. The lowest winning score over the last 10 years is 13 under and there have been three playoffs in that spell. Nine US players have won the tournament this century which means that 10 players from overseas have prevailed.
There is a great deal to like about Thomas’s chances this week. The defending champion leads the Tour in strokes gained from tee to green and was ninth in the WGC Mexico Championship last week. However, Scott is preferred on the basis of being another past champion and four top 15s in as many starts. He has gained strokes putting on the rest of the field in his last four tournaments so can win the Honda Classic for the second time. The double on Luiten and Scott pays 175/1.