While the big names in the field at the 2013 Honda Classic last weekend faded in the stretch, or saw their games blown away by the windy weekend conditions at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, a three-year pro with a thin resumé outlasted a rookie and an Aussie on a comeback streak for the win.
Michael Thompson, a 27-year-old University of Alabama graduate with only three MCs and a T-78 to show for the 2013 season to date, posted rounds of 67 and 65 in the first two days of the tournament, coming into the weekend one stroke behind Luke Guthrie, a Web.com Tour graduate in his first year as a PGA Tour member. Guthrie had followed his opening round 68 with a 7-under 63 on Saturday – which would turn out to be the low round of the tournament.
The Honda Classic boasted the strongest field on the PGA Tour so far this season, mainly due to the high percentage of top-flight pros who live in Central Florida and the fact that the WGC-Cadillac Championship limited-field event, just up the road at Doral, follows the Honda. Thompson and Guthrie had some tough company breathing down their necks going into the weekend. Despite the ignominious early exits of first-round leader Camilo Villegas after a second-round 77 and world #1 Rory McIlroy mid-round on Friday – with an alleged toothache – after going 7-over in his first eight holes, there was still plenty of talent in the pack behind the leaders.
The calm, mild conditions which had prevailed for the first two days of the tournament started to erode on Saturday; cooler, and more importantly, windier, conditions caused scores to soar into the par+ range. Only eight players managed to break par in the third round; the average score increased by almost four strokes over Friday’s number, from 68.8 to 72.7. Even-par was a very good number on the third day of play – Tiger Woods carded his third-straight par round and moved up from T-65 to T-32, while Keegan Bradley went from T-18 to T-7 with a third-round 70, after opening with a pair of 68s.
Guthrie and Thompson owed their positions at the top of the leaderboard Saturday morning to having posted the two lowest rounds of the day on Friday – 63 and 65, respectively – so their rounds of 71 and 70 kept them on top at the end of the day on Saturday, albeit with positions reversed, as Thompson led by a stroke over Guthrie.
Lurking among the next ten spots below Guthrie and Thompson on the leaderboard going into the final round were names like Geoff Ogilvy, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Y. E. yang, Keegan Bradley, and Charles Howell III. Ogilvy has had a flat couple of years, but had recently been showing signs of a rejuvenated game; Westwood is the most likely current candidate for the dubious honor of “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major”, and is settling in to the Florida golf lifestyle after having recently moved his family to the area; Justin Rose and Charles Howell III were early favorites to win this event, and then there were two more players among the group who each have that major scalp hanging from their belt – Y.E. Yang and the broomstick-wielding Keegan Bradley.
The weather was once again a big factor in the final round, and the big names who were on the heels of the 54-hole co-leaders were fighting the windy conditions for the traction to make a run at the the top spot. Guthrie may have been showing some rookie nerves when he faltered in the stretch, slipping to a 3-over 73 as his putter cooled down in the relatively chilly (for Florida) conditions, but it is telling that despite his flat performance he slipped back no more than a single spot, to solo third place.
The strongest contender in the chase pack on Sunday was Geoff Ogilvy. The lanky Aussie had been three strokes out of first place after 36 holes, and only two back going into Sunday’s final round. Showing his windswept Melbourne heritage, Ogilvy posted a one-under 69 on Sunday, one of only five under-par rounds on the final day. A string of pars put him ahead of Guthrie by the turn, and was finally broken by a bogey at the par-4 fourteenth hole. A pair of birdies down the stretch, at 16 and 18, narrowed the gap on Thompson, but the two strokes he picked up were too little, too late.
Thompson showed that he could play in the wind, too – he also posted a 69 in the final round, albeit in a little more ragged fashion than Ogilvy’s par streak, with an eagle and two birdies against three bogeys on the front nine, and another bogey and a birdie in the closing stretch, at 16 and 18. Though not as pretty a performance as he put up earlier in the week, it was enough to hold off his Aussie pursuer for the win.
Despite his failure to close the gap on Michael Thompson and take the win at PGA National, Geoff Ogilvy’s solo second jumped him up from 79th to 47th in the Official World Golf Rankings. The bump up the ratings secured his spot in the field at the WGC-Cadillac Championship this week at Doral, and confirmed the validity of his comeback run. The win at the Honda Classic vaulted Michael Thompson from 114th to 45th in the OWGR and into his first WGC field, enabling him to follow up his initial Tour victory with yet another first.