5 to Watch: Honda Classic

Rory McIlroy
USA Today Images
Rory McIlroy lost in a playoff to Russell Henley in last year's Honda Classic.
By Mark Aumann

Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 | 10:43 a.m.

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.

HONDA CLASSIC: Tee times | Rory McIlroy heads field

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.

CLASSIC TALE: Winning 2014 Honda Classic was huge for Henley

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? 

HOT START: Dustin Johnson poised for breakout season

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.