Fowler eager to defend at Honda; Tiger seeks progress

Tiger Woods made it clear that his return to competitive golf is geared toward building up to the major tournaments, and he clearly is not concerned about finding comfortable landing spots in setting his schedule ahead of the Masters in April.

Just hours before missing the cut last Friday at the Genesis Open, a tournament Woods has never won, he committed to this week’s Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Granted, Woods is a nearby resident of Jupiter, Fla., but the second leg of his first consecutive tournaments in more than a year comes at the difficult PGA National.

Fourth-ranked Justin Thomas was blunt in his assessment on Wednesday, saying, “If you’re driving it bad, it’s a tough place to play well.”

That would not seem to bode well for Woods, who has been wildly inconsistent off the tee in his first two tournaments of the year. While he is averaging nearly 300 yards per drive, Woods has hit just 35.71 percent of his fairways off the tee.

Still, Woods said he is looking forward to continuing to round his game back into shape in tournament conditions.

“I’m starting to get that feeling again of playing tournament golf, where each and every shot counts,” Woods said. “I’m looking at where I need to put the golf ball, I’m looking at forecasts … things, before when you’re at home, who cares where the wind is coming from? Who cares what the forecast is the next couple of days.

“But now, playing tournament golf, I’m starting to get into that flow again. I’ve missed it, and it’s becoming familiar again.”

Woods certainly is not among the pre-tournament favorites, as just making the cut would be considered progress.

Rickie Fowler is the defending champion, and he faces a stacked field that has made its way to Palm Beach Gardens following the end of the West Coast Swing. Fowler, also a Florida resident, is back home for the first time in two months and eager to defend the title he won by three strokes over Morgan Hoffmann and Gary Woodland last year.

“It’s definitely nice to be back here,” Fowler said. “This is a golf course I love to play, especially on days like this. It’s a difficult golf course without wind, and when it picks up, even more so. It’s a place that demands your attention at all times.”

Thomas admitted he was tired after traveling cross country following his tie for at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles on Sunday. He missed the cut at the Honda Classic last year and has had mixed results at the event.

“I’m a little bit tired,” Thomas acknowledged. “But this is a place that is quite a test, especially with the wind conditions that we may get. It’s a very difficult course, it’s just kind of dependent on the weather conditions you get that day.”

Rory McIlroy also made the cross-country trek, and the Northern Irishman will tee it up for the third consecutive week as he gets his PGA Tour season rolling full steam. The 28-year-old reached No. 1 in the world for the first time after winning the Honda in 2012. He missed the event last year while recovering from an injury, and he missed the cut the previous two years.

“This place just magnifies your misses a little,” said McIlroy, whose 13 PGA Tour victories since 2010 lead all European players. (England’s Justin Rose is second with eight, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson third with four.)

Also in the field is Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who will make his 2018 PGA Tour debut. In seven career starts at the Honda, the 11th-ranked player in the world has made seven cuts. He finished second once, has a pair of top-10 finishes and holds a career 69.8 scoring average at the event.

“Extremely excited,” said Garcia. “Obviously it’s a big week, a tournament that I’ve always enjoyed playing. Great golf course. Really, really a ball-striker’s type of golf course, which I’ve always enjoyed. So it’s fun to start the season here.”

In his last six starts worldwide, Garcia has two wins, a tie for fourth and a tie for 19th, so he enters the week confident despite making an offseason switch to Callaway equipment.

Garcia, who is expecting his first child with his wife, also insisted that he has plenty of motivation despite getting the “major monkey” off his back at the Masters last year.

“I’m as hungry, or hungrier than I was before. It doesn’t change,” he said. “I wanted to do well so badly (after the Masters) …. that that’s why my game would be very good for a couple of rounds, and then for a couple of rounds not really good.

“When I started to kind of relax, thinking, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re playing well, you’re playing great. Just trust it,’ and that’s when things started coming along a little bit easier like earlier on in the year.”

For all the marquee names in the field, most eyes — and cameras — will be on the 10th tee Thursday when Woods begins his round on the back nine at 7:45 a.m. ET. He will be paired with Patton Kizzire, the only two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season, and Brandt Snedeker.

Snedeker has played numerous competitive rounds with Woods, but it will be a new experience for Kizzire. Even Thomas was amazed at the difference between playing with McIlroy and Woods for the first two rounds last week and teeing it up with just McIlroy on Saturday.

“Rory and I were walking up to the tee and we were like, ‘Where is everybody?'” Thomas recalled of beginning the third round at Riviera. “‘Like, does he really bring that many people?’ That was the first that I’ve experienced of that. First time being in the group and experiencing that, it was pretty bizarre.”

Thomas won’t be fully removed from the mayhem. He will tee off along with Garcia and Daniel Berger in the group ahead of Woods.

“I’d love to play with him every week,” Thomas said. “I was going to say the crowds might be a little bit better, but I’m playing in the group in front of him, which might be even worse than playing with him.”

–By Derek Harper, Field Level Media

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