After a successful finish to the West Coast swing, the PGA Tour heads east for its annual four-week Florida spring fling, beginning this weekend at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., host of the Honda Classic.
The Champion Course, a par-70, 7,140-yard test, was originally designed by George and Tom Fazio in time to host the 1983 Ryder Cup. The course also hosted the 1987 PGA Championship. Then in 1990, Jack Nicklaus put his distinctive design touches on the facility, adding the now famous three-hole "Bear Trap" section, beginning with No. 15.
There are a few changes for 2015: some greens have been expanded and No. 14 could now be considered a "bear snare," as a revamped green brings water into play. If the winter tradewinds start to blow, expect scores to climb.
If past performance is any indication, don't expect a runaway winner at PGA National. Only once since the Honda Classic moved there in 2007 has the margin of victory been more than two strokes -- and three times the tournament has gone to a sudden-death playoff, including a four-man showdown last year.
With that, here are five players to watch this week.
5. Phil Mickelson
2014 Honda Classic: Missed cut
Reason to watch: After missing much of the western swing to spend time with his children, Lefty tees it up at PGA National this weekend. Maybe the break will have done him good, since he missed the cut at both Phoenix and San Diego -- places where he's had tremendous success in the past.
Since coming so close to winning the PGA Championship last summer, Mickelson's game hasn't been up to par. Perhaps this is the week Lefty breaks out of his slump. He certainly seemed encouraged by the announcement Tuesday by the Ryder Cup Task Force of changes to the makeup and long-term strategy for Team USA.
4. Jason Dufner
2014 Honda Classic: Did not play
Reason to watch: Since the calendar switched over to 2015, Dufner hasn't made a cut. But that's not necessarily an indication of how much better Jason feels -- and how much better he's swinging. Losing 20 pounds certainly couldn't hurt.
You have to believe most of his early-season issues are rust and repetition -- Dufner pretty much shut down after his neck injury forced him to withdraw from the PGA Championship last summer. PGA National should give us a real good read on where Duf is right now, and what to expect from him heading into the Masters.
3. Russell Henley
2014 Honda Classic: Won playoff
Reason to watch: Some guys just need to know what it's like to win, and that's when things take off. Perhaps that's the best way to describe Henley, before and after his 2014 Honda Classic victory.
After a final-round 72, which required a par save just to get into the playoff, Henley appeared least likely of those standing on the No. 18 tee to be holding the trophy at the end of the day. But he reached the green in two with a tremendous approach shot, and his tap-in birdie was good enough for victory.
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Since then, Henley added three more top-10 finishes, wound up 12th in the season-ending Tour Championship -- and picked up right where he left off this season. He's made the cut in all six starts, including a tie for fourth at the McGladrey and tie for third at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
2. Dustin Johnson
2014 Honda Classic: Did not play
Reason to watch: Fourth at Pebble Beach, lost the playoff at Riviera last weekend to James Hahn. Can he keep the momentum going on the other side of the continent?
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One moment, he'll pull off a shot like he did at Riviera's No. 10 in the playoff that will make you leap for joy. The next, he'll do something that'll make you tear your hair out. If he ever finds that consistency -- watch out. Plus, he'll have the benefit of "home cooking" this weekend, since he lives in nearby Jupiter.
1. Rory McIlroy
2014 Honda Classic: Tied for second (lost playoff)
Reason to watch: It's hard to believe at this time last year, we were still not certain McIlroy had figured out the equipment change issues that seemed to plague him all of 2013. Remember, he went out and shot a blistering 63 in Thursday's first round -- and looked like a runaway winner. But he stumbled to a final-round 74, came almost completely unraveled before a remarkable birdie on the final hole just to make the playoff, and then lost when Henley birdied the extra hole.
What a difference one year makes. After wins in the Open Championship and PGA Championship, McIlroy moved back into the world's No. 1 ranking. And he looked every bit the part at the Dubai Desert Classic three weeks ago.
Jack Nicklaus admits one of his greatest weaknesses is his fondness for ice cream. So perhaps its not a surprise he's teamed up with Schwan Food Company to start his own line of premium ice cream.
According to a news release posted Wednesday on Jack's web site, the new Jack Nicklaus pints -- in seven different flavors -- will be available, beginning in March. Stores expected to sell the Golden Bear's frozen treats include Winn Dixie, Bi-Lo and Kroger stores, with a suggested retail price of $1.99.
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"It’s no secret that I love ice cream," Nicklaus was quoted as saying. "Needless to say, I have never had so much fun in the research and development of a product. The team at Schwan has a world-class product development center. Together, we have created a variety of flavors -- all with real ingredients -- for a quality, premium ice cream at a value price."
In case you're wondering, the flavors include Warm Spiced Butter Pecan, Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl, Salted Caramel Toffee, Strawberry Lemonade, Triple Chocolate, Coffee and Donuts, and Homemade Vanilla. Notice there's no chips.
The collaboration between Jack, his wife Barbara and Schwan is more than just about dessert. The bottom line is philanthropy.
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According to the release, "Schwan has become a supporter of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. The Foundation’s goal is to provide families access to world-class pediatric healthcare. Beyond the ice cream pilot program in 2015, the Nicklauses hope to tie in other children’s charities to sales of the product."
Among the Nicklaus-branded or licensed products introduced in recent years that benefit children’s charities are water, wine, lemonade, sunglasses and golf balls.
To say golfers are a bit fanatical might be putting it a bit mildly, in an endearing way. No matter the weather -- if the course is open and playable -- chances are you'll find someone willing to tee it up.
We asked our Facebook followers this question over the weekend: "What's the worst winter weather you've played golf in, and what did you shoot?"
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Here are some of our favorite responses, including some who enjoyed the experience and others who probably would pass, given another chance to stay inside, warm and dry. The entire list can be found here.
Scott L Moyes: I played in 30 degrees and a hail storm and shot a 30. Then I played the second hole.
Scott Schoedler: 30 degrees. Hard frozen turf and couldn't hold greens. Ball would bounce like it was a cart path. Hit a ball fat and felt like I broke my left wrist.
Erik Watson: Nick N. Kristin and I played in the Yukon Classic at Smoky Mountain Golf Club in Newport, Tenn. This tourney is played rain or shine, every year on Super Bowl Weekend. We started at 30 degrees with 15 mph winds and snow a blowin' and we were the only team in the tourney without a cart cover. Greens were like an ice rink and we finished last.
Ted Forde: Must have been minus-3 or -4 up at Mouse Valley in Scotland. Played the small course and it was so cold I hit an eight-iron second shot onto the par-4 first green, which was in the shadows of trees. Green was like concrete and ball bounced about 30 feet in the air in the bushes behind, never to be seen again.
Bob Bransdon: Durango Hills in Las Vegas, 28 degrees at tee time, 34 when the round concluded.
Mike Osterbur: Played in 33-degree weather this past December, in Illinois. Can't remember the score -- I'm still thawing out.
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Patrick Cronen: 20 degrees in Orlando when I was playing the Space Coast Golf Tour: crazy cold and windy.
Victor Israel Graulau Jr.: I played 18 at a military golf course. The temperature was 55 at tee time, and dropped 30 degrees, along with a stiff wind, which probably dropped the temperature another 5-8 degrees all before we hit the back nine. I ended shooting a 50 on the back nine. shot an 98.
Alan Chard: 34 degrees, but the course we play at has covers on the carts and I have a heater, which makes it pretty nice inside the cart if you keep it zipped up.
Bill Stevenson: Started off at 40 degrees. As we played, temperatures kept dropping and clouds moved in on us. By the seventh hole, it began to snow. By the 10th, it came down heavy and temps had hit 30 degrees. We cut to the 18th and finished out.
Beverly Burling: Some course in northern Michigan in May. Snow and sleet coming at us sideways. I remember the last hole and my teammate telling me on a ten foot putt, "I'll give yours if you give me mine." They did give us pizza, however.
Tim McIntyre: Played once in December in Pittsburgh. A friend of mine hit a nice high short iron into the green, green was frozen solid, ball bounced like it had landed on concrete. The course probably should not have been open.
Steve Zastrow: I played in about 35 degrees. As we played, it got colder and a snow shower hit. Miserable conditions. Wasn't fun.
Jim Fathead Elkin: Played 30 degrees before. Never again!
Stuart McGillivray: Three below zero at my old club, Greenburn. It was so cold, even our bags started freezing up.
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Ken Dyer: Sleet, rain, snow and cold. Done it all but regretted doing it at the time, but will do it again.
Susan Currie: Four degrees, it was in Utah last year in March! Froze my hiney off!
Justin Gomez: It was like 20-30 degrees and really windy and I only made it through four holes and I called it quits. I am a south Texan!
John T. Smoot: I don't remember the temp, but one of my playing partners hit a ball and it split into two halves.
Donald DeCain: I'd say about 34 degrees. Not too bad except for my hands. I'm in New England, gotta take 'em when you get 'em.
Chris Poulsen: -2° C and scored a 68 (-4).
Lekimble Moore: 17° in Van Buren, Ark. Shot from tee box, off the frozen pond, onto the fairway! Is that even legal? Well, I took it anyway.
James Luke: -4 C. Started snowing, could drive it 400 yards because the ground was rock-hard frost like concrete
Jimi Thompson: 30 degrees with about 20 mph wind so it felt colder. Had to stop on the back nine but was issued a SNOW CHECK because the greens were un-puttable.
Darryl W. Moreland: I played all four seasons in one day. Arrived at course under sunny skies. Started raining then it turned to sleet, then turned to snow, then back to sunshine. I never stopped playing. It was about 25 degrees with wind.
Keith Grisco: Below freezing. They wanted us to wait to tee off until it got to 40 degrees, but it never did, not even close. It was a lake course and the wind was rippin' cold!
Tim Brummett: Regularly play when it's in the low 30s F and play two-man scrambles with scores in the 70s. Love winter golf!
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Gene Spalding: Below freezing with the lakes at Lincoln Park frozen over. Hit a ball on the lake on No. 9 and it bounced all the way out the other side.
John Camping: Indiana, Brookshire GC, playing with my dad, think it was Christmas eve around that time. It was snowing, sleeting, but we managed to finish nine holes. I was about 10 years old -- great day at the course because playing with my dad in the snow, priceless.
Di Thomas: Putted the ball and it became larger and larger as it collected the snow as it went. Picked up after that and went in the clubhouse for a hot chocolate.
And then there are the people who just have to have the last word ...
Brian Kirkland: I live in California so I think the coldest was a crispy 45 in the a.m. and by 9, it was 72.