Honda Classic gives golfers chance for redemption


Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — A missed tee shot by Rickie Fowler. A missed putt by Phil Mickelson. A missed opportunity for Rory McIlroy.

All three had great chances to win in the last tournament they played. All three are eager to get back to work at the Honda Classic at a time of the year when each tournament presents a strong test and each week gets them closer to the first major of the year at Augusta National.

McIlroy’s scars are the most recent, though they are more like a flesh wound.

Two shots behind going into the last round Sunday at Riviera, he made eagle on the par-5 opening hole to briefly tie for the lead. That was as close as he got. He three-putted from 12 feet on No. 4, found the bunker in the middle of the green at No. 6, had a long birdie putt that nearly went off the green at No. 7 and spent the rest of the day trying to catch up, which is a tough spot to be in at Riviera.

He closed with a 75 and tied for 20th.

“The score probably got away from me because of that,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “So I didn’t dwell on it too much because I knew that it was more the circumstances I put myself in. I know my game is in good shape and it’s there, and hope to get into contention again this week.”

The Honda Classic, which begins Thursday, is hit-and-miss for McIlroy.

He won at PGA National in 2012 to reach No. 1 for the first time in his career. The next year, he walked off the course in the middle of the second round when he was on his way to missing the cut, citing a sore wisdom tooth. He lost a two-shot lead and lost in a four-man playoff in 2014 and then missed the cut last year.

Is it the nature of the golf course? The wind?

“I think it’s the nature of me,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, it’s one of these golf courses that if you’re slightly off, it can really magnify your misses a little bit, and it can make you feel as if you’re playing worse than what you actually are.”

Mickelson is thrilled to be playing better than he has the last few years, at least based on the first month of the season.

Even so, it was a disappointment two weeks ago at Pebble Beach when he had a two-shot lead in the final round and wound up closing with a 72 to finish one shot behind Vaughn Taylor, who had gone 10 years without winning. Mickelson had a 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff and watched it spin around the edge of the cup.

Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion who turns 46 this year. Along with 45 wins around the world, he has finished second 36 times. Patience comes easily with age and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“Whether I won or lost the tournament, I was still using it as a steppingstone for the rest of the year for where my game has gone,” Mickelson said. “It’s gone through a difficult time for a couple of years. And the fact that I’m playing well again, I’m in contention, and I’m hitting shots with ease … I’m showing up at the golf course not trying to find something but continue refining what I’m already doing.

“So win, lose or what have you, it’s not really affecting the confidence that I have or the direction that I feel like my game is going.”

His three kids being out of school was the primary reason Mickelson didn’t play Riviera last week, though he conceded that four straight events to start the year was enough golf at that point.

He has played the Honda Classic the last two years with indifferent results. Mickelson is mostly geared toward Augusta.

Fowler has had two weeks to think about losing a prime opportunity at the Phoenix Open. He had a two-shot lead with two holes to play when he chose a driver off the tee on the 17th hole, it took a hard bounce and went over the green and into the water. One hole later, he had to make a 10-foot putt just to get into a playoff, and then he lost on the 17th hole when his tee shot again went into the water and Hideki Matsuyama beat him.

Fowler held back tears in his news conference, mainly because he had family members there who had never seen him win.

But having won at Abu Dhabi for his fourth victory in the last eight months, it did not shake his confidence.

“I’m fine,” he said. “It’s obviously one that I wanted to get. Felt like I was in a great position to get it. But I’ve been playing well, all through last summer, through the fall. Just really focusing on this week and see if we can get off to a good, solid start.”

Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

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