Honda Classic again boasts strong foreign flavor as tour hits Florida

camilo villegas
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Defending champion Camilo Villegas is the third straight player born outside the United States to win the Honda Classic.
By
Steven Wine
Associated Press

Series:

Lee Westwood has seen lots of sand this year, and not just in bunkers.

Tournament travel took the world’s No. 2-ranked player to desert oases in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai and Arizona. The landscape’s a little more lush this week in Florida, where Westwood will compete in the Honda Classic beginning Thursday.

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2011 HONDA CLASSIC

The back nine on the Champion Course at PGA National features "the Bear Trap," a three-hole stretch beginning at No. 15 that traditionally ranks among the toughest stretches on the PGA Tour.

And if his itinerary sounds exhausting, well, Westwood said it is.

“If you don’t do it much, then the travel obviously can get to you, the jet lag,” the Englishman said. “But you get used to it. I’ve been doing it for 18 years now, traveling through eight time zones. It’s just something you learn to get on with and contend with: playing tired.”

Globe-trotting is a challenge for all golfers, and especially top Europeans like Westwood who divide their time between PGA Tour events and tournaments closer to home.

These days, top Europeans are handling the jet lag just fine. For the first time since 1992, Europe occupies the first four world ranking spots, with Martin Kaymer of Germany the new No. 1, England’s Luke Donald No. 3 and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland ranked No. 4.

“It’s a reflection of European golf at the moment,” Westwood said. “It’s very strong. You’ve got established players playing well, and young players coming through. We have some great players right now not afraid to play well all over the world.”

An international flavor is nothing new for the Honda Classic. The past three winners have been Camilo Villegas of Colombia, Y.E. Yang of South Korea, Ernie Els of South Africa.

All are back this week, along with eight other former champions. That includes 1994 winner Nick Price of South Africa, playing in his first PGA Tour event since 2008.

Skipping the event is Woods, who at No. 5 has slipped to his lowest ranking in nearly 14 years. He has played Honda only once -- in 1993, when he missed the cut.

Also absent is Kaymer, who officially took over No. 1 this week. He lost Sunday to Donald in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- the second straight year for an all-European final.

Westwood, who replaced Woods atop the rankings in October, has a chance to regain No. 1 this week. Such a close race was unheard of before Woods’ slump created an opportunity for Westwood and the other top Europeans to jumble the top of the rankings.

“It is more volatile,” Donald said. “That makes it fun for us players, and it makes it fun for the fans, too. I think when Tiger was so dominant, mathematically it was almost impossible for anyone to catch him, unless they won nearly every tournament they played in.

“But now it’s open, and I think that’s great for golf. Obviously, Europe is enjoying an extremely purple patch right now, and we are riding the wave very highly.”

The wave surfaced suddenly. Only a year ago, Americans held the world’s top three spots in the world rankings.

At least one observer is confident they’ll be on top again soon.

“It goes back and forth,” Jack Nicklaus said. “When guys get down, they say all of a sudden, ‘We have to kick ourselves in the rear end, and we have to go play.’ And I think they will.”

Maybe even this week.

Whoever wins will have to contend with a difficult course made more so by winds of 15 to 20 mph forecast for all four days, with thunderstorms possible Sunday.

Last year the average round at PGA National Resort and Spa was 1.6 strokes above par. Only the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach had a higher average.

“This golf course is always tough,” Villegas said after a wind-swept round in Wednesday’s pro-am. “It is going to be challenging.”

The world will be watching. Success by foreign players has enhanced international interest in the PGA Tour.

“It’s healthy for the game,” Price said. “You’ve got to know that people in other parts of the world are watching our tour and watching when these guys play. So golf, for the fan, has become a much smaller world.”