PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – As expected, there were more tumbles, stumbles and complete somersaults on the Sunday leaderboard at The Honda Classic than there were ripples along the waters that guard so many of the holes at PGA National’s often ferocious Champion layout.
Of course, there seemingly is always an outlier in the crowd. This week at Honda, that was Matt Jones. The well-tested veteran from Australia started Sunday on top by three shots and despite all the tumult around him, he never did budge, never did give in. It was as if he took the strongest rope he could find and tethered himself to the largest rock he could find in the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
With the exception of a brief spell on Friday night, the 40-year-old Jones held some sort of ownership of the lead most of the week at Honda. He pretty much just shrugged his shoulders after shooting a record-tying 61 to open, trailed by three on Friday night after his 70, and had the lead again when he went to bed Saturday. By Sunday night, having closed with a technically-sound round of 2-under 68 to push his way to 12-under 268, five shots clear of his nearest pursuer, he’d earned the beautiful crystal trophy he would hold. It had been a while since tasting victory on this side of the pond. Honda was Jones’ second PGA TOUR title, adding to the 2014 Vivint Houston Open, and moves him up to 11th in the FedExCup standings.
Brandon Hagy, an alternate to start the week, battled back after shooting 76 on Saturday to shoot 66 on Sunday and climb all the way into solo second at 7 under. It was a career-best finish for Hagy, arriving on the Californian’s 30th birthday. He finished hours ahead of Jones, who on this week resided in a stratosphere all his own. Jones’ experience in the wind – he owns two Australian Open titles – showed up on the weekend in the way he flighted his golf ball. It also showed in the way he carried himself. It was well, different. In his 330th career TOUR start, he said he felt the calmest he ever has felt. And after one last par putt fell at 18, Jones got emotional.
“I mean, golf … it’s a very tough sport we play out here,” Jones said. “It’s very cutthroat. We’re working to keep our jobs every year. And you have to perform well to be able to do that. It’s been seven years since I won, and there have been some lean years in there.”
When Jones won his first title in Houston seven years ago, he holed a long pitch to prevail in a playoff over Matt Kuchar. He had holed a 45-foot putt at the 72nd hole just to earn his spot. He was catching lightning. This time around, even on one of the TOUR’s most demanding tests, things were much easier. His hair is sprinkled with gray for a reason; his seasoning showed in how he managed a golf course that has potential disaster awaiting at every corner. A day after scrambling to a 1-under 69 in the wind, Jones hit 17 of 18 greens and kept giving himself quality birdie looks. He made easy pars, and five birdies. Nobody matched his total of 20 birdies for the week.
“I’m wondering why this guy isn’t a household name,” said NBC’s Paul Azinger, admiring the ballstriking display he was witnessing. Jones, now an Arizona resident who works via Facetime with coach Gary Barter back in Australia, said he had felt something coming with his ballstriking. It wasn’t too off at Bay Hill, where he missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard two weeks ago. At THE PLAYERS, as he worked on his craft on the practice tee, it clicked.
The man with one victory in 329 career TOUR starts confided to a friend that something very good was about to happen at PGA National. As others around him staggered into doubles and triples and penalty areas on the weekend, how was it that Jones remained so calm? He smiled when asked the question. He really doesn’t know the “why” of it.
Sunday, when Jones made the rare mistake – a three-putt at the seventh, a short miss for par at 11 – he also had an answer. Birdies at the 12th and 13th holes pushed him to a five-shot lead. He treated the ever-lurking Bear Trap (holes 15-17) as if it were a small and harmless cub. Par. Birdie. Par. When his ball he struck with a wedge safely crossed water and hit land on the rugged par-3 17th, he pumped his right fist. Jones really enjoyed the walk up the last. For the second consecutive round he was the lone player in the final six pairings to break 70. All the while, he was so calm.
“I couldn’t put anything on it. I probably had a goal this week to walk a little slower, and just relax,” Jones said. “I’m normally an up-pace, up-tempo person. I play golf quickly. So I tried to stay calm and stay relaxed out there. You have to be when you play this golf course. I set that as a goal this week, and it worked out.”
It did. Jones was going to take three weeks off after Honda, but now he will be getting ready for his second Masters in Augusta, Ga. The only other one he played was a whirlwind, as he’d won in Houston on the Sunday leading into the tournament to become the last man in. The week remains a blur. He’ll take his time and enjoy this visit. There’s also the two-year PGA TOUR exemption, and starts in other big tournaments that he wasn’t able to play as a golfer ranked 83rd in the world. Jones even mentioned the Olympics as a possibility, and maybe even making his first Presidents Cup team.
So many possibilities. Amazing how one week can change a golfer’s life. Over four days at Honda, and after seven lean years, Matt Jones had earned every inch of it.
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Aaron Wise had a six-shot lead during the third round of The Honda Classic, looking poised to turn the tournament into a rout.
Everything went wrong from there, and Matt Jones took full advantage.
The 40-year-old Australian handled the wind at PGA National to shoot a 1-under 69 on Saturday, going to 10 under for the tournament and moving three shots clear of Wise and J.B. Holmes.
“I’m happy to go low with the ball flight and I’m probably a little more conservative when the wind is up,” Jones said. “I’ll probably play a little safer than normal. I’m naturally a very aggressive player. But I think in the wind, I have a tendency to manage the golf course differently.”
Wise played his final 13 holes in 7 over, capped by hitting his tee shot into a quagmire of weeds and muck on the 18th for what became another bogey to cap a round of 75. Holmes (67) broke par for his third consecutive round.
“There really wasn’t anything I really struggled with today,” Holmes said. “I hit everything pretty solid. So, it was just a really good day for me.”
Former University of Washington star C.T. Pan had a bogey-free 65 — the low round of the day — to get to 6 under, along with Cameron Tringale (69) and Sam Ryder (72). Defending champion Sungjae Im (69) was 5 under, tied with Keegan Bradley (67), Robert Streb (70), Zach Johnson (70), Brice Garnett (70) and Stewart Cink (70).
History says they’re all still in the mix. Only two of the last seven 54-hole leaders at the Honda — Adam Scott in 2016 and Rickie Fowler in 2017 — have gone on to win. Im trailed by three last year entering the final round, Keith Mitchell by one in 2019, Justin Thomas by one in 2018, Padraig Harrington by three in 2015, and Russell Henley by two in 2014.
Scott was tied for the lead after 54 holes on his way to the 2016 win, and Fowler had a four-shot cushion going into Sunday four years ago.
“You mainly just try to focus on what you’re doing,” Holmes said. “There’s enough scoreboards out there; you’re going to glance at it every now and then. But when the wind’s this difficult, anything can happen.”
Wise was 2 under for his round and 14 under for the tournament after the fifth hole, six shots clear of the field.
That’s when his woes started, and what became a nine-shot turnaround between he and Jones began.
Wise sailed the cart path at the par-4 sixth, beginning a stretch where he would miss five fairways in a six-hole stretch. He three-putted for double bogey — his first of the week — at the sixth, then dropped shots at two of his next four holes.
Jones grabbed a share of the lead with a birdie at the par-4 14th. Wise made bogey at the par-3 15th, falling out of the lead.
“I was playing from out of position a lot, so it added up to a big number,” Wise said. “But luckily with how I played those first two days I’m still in it and still have a chance.”
The 15th starts the three-hole stretch called “The Bear Trap,” a nod to Jack Nicklaus, and those holes tend to decide matters at PGA National. They were wrought with trouble Saturday; the 15th was the easiest, relatively speaking, surrendering eight birdies to 68 players.
The 16th and 17th, combined, saw one birdie Saturday.
Jones got within one with a birdie at the par-4 11th, then made another birdie at the par-4 14th to get to 10 under and tie Wise for the lead at that point. And when Wise made bogey at the par-3 15th, Jones was the outright leader again.
He was 9 under after the opening round, 1 under in the 36 holes since. It’s good enough for the lead and his plan for Sunday couldn’t be more simple.
“Just keep doing what I’m doing,” Jones said.
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Aaron Wise is making PGA National look easy.
Wise shot his second straight 6-under 64 on Friday to take a three-stroke lead into the weekend at The Honda Classic. The 128 total is the lowest 36-hole score at PGA National since the tournament moved there 15 years ago — and marks the first 36-hole lead of Wise’s PGA Tour career.
“It’s two great rounds of golf and I love that, and I love that I’m playing good,” Wise said. “But this place can get to you pretty quick and there’s a lot of golf left ahead and a lot of trouble out there.”
He had a pair of eagles to highlight the day, his first two of 2021. Brandon Hagy (62) and first-round leader Matt Jones (70) were tied for second.
Wise birdied the last to finish off the 64, the eighth round of 64 or lower surrendered by PGA National this week. Until this year, there’s never been more than seven rounds of 64 or lower in a Honda on that course; last year, no player even broke 66.
Wise made a 3-footer for a 3 at the par-5 18th, his ninth hole of the day, then connected on a 45-footer for eagle at the par-5 third.
“I’ve made so many bonus putts from outside 10 feet that I can’t complain,” said the 24-year-old Wise, the 2016 NCAA champion for Oregon.
Hagy didn’t even know he was playing in the tournament until it was almost too late to get a flight, getting in as the next-to-last alternate. He opened with a 69, then shot 62 — the fourth score that low in Honda history at PGA National — Friday.
“It’s been kind of a funny week,” Hagy said. “I was in Scottsdale on Tuesday afternoon and get a flight last minute, fly out Tuesday, don’t play practice rounds. I’m feeling like I’m playing on a little bit of house money, so I kept it pretty loose out there.”
Jones survived five bogeys to shoot even-par 70. Sam Ryder (63) was alone in fourth, four shots back at 8 under. Shane Lowry (66) was in a group at 7 under.
“I love this place,” Ryder said.
Jones (61), Wise (64) and Russell Henley (64) had the 64s or better Thursday; Hagy, Ryder, Wise, Brice Garnett (64) and Stewart Cink (64) had them Friday. Cink shot a 67 in his first Honda round at PGA National 12 years ago; he hadn’t been better than that in any of his 39 rounds there since, until Friday.
“It felt like an easier day scoring,” Cink said. “I played better, but it just felt like the course was more reasonable today than it was yesterday. This course is always hard.”
Wise’s score marked only the third time someone has been double digits under par after the first two rounds since The Honda Classic moved to PGA National. Both previous ones happened in 2014; Rory McIlroy was 11 under after 36 holes, one shot better than Brandon De Jonge.
McIlroy wound up losing that year in a playoff. De Jonge shot 76-78 on the weekend and tied for 63rd.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker shot 71 and is 3 under. Padraig Harrington, captain of this year’s European Ryder Cup team, shot 78 and missed the cut. So did Lee Westwood, who was coming off back-to-back runner-up finishes at Bay Hill and THE PLAYERS Championship.
The silver lining for the 47-year-old Westwood was clear: He gets a couple days off before the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play next week. And he knew he was gassed even before getting to PGA National.
“This was probably a tournament too far for me, after the run I’ve had the last two weeks,” Westwood said. “But I felt like I should play here this week. In an ideal world this would have been a week off after finishing second the last two weeks. What can you do? Just felt like one I had to play.”
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Matt Jones’ opening round at The Honda Classic was remarkable.
He was remarkably unimpressed.
Jones tied the course record Thursday on a typically windy day at PGA National with a bogey-free 9-under 61 giving him a three-shot lead. He matched the mark set by Brian Harman in the second round in 2012, and was one shot better than the final-round 62 that Tiger Woods posted that year.
“That’s an incredible round of golf,” said Lee Westwood, who opened with an even-par 70. “Could be the round of the year, 61 around here, when it’s flat calm, impressive. But when there’s a 15-, 20-mile-an-hour wind blowing, greens are fast, a lot of crosswinds, that’s an incredible round of golf.”
All told, there have been roughly 6,000 tournament rounds at The Honda Classic since it moved to PGA National in 2007. None was better than the one Thursday from Jones.
He seemed most unfazed afterward.
“I play golf for a living,” Jones said. “I mean, I should be able to shoot a good golf score occasionally. It doesn’t happen as much as I want. But yes, I’m very happy with it. I was very calm, I was very relaxed out there. I’m normally a bit more amped-up and hyped-up and I had a different goal this week, to be a little more calm than normally and walk slower.”
It worked wonders.
He’s not into charting superlatives. He doesn’t know how many course records he holds, or how many holes in one he’s made. He wasn’t even aware he had four consecutive birdies on the front nine Thursday until he saw his card on a giant leaderboard as his round was ending.
“I was just managing the golf course and hitting good shots,” Jones said.
Russell Henley and Aaron Wise shot 64s, matching the best score at The Honda Classic by anyone — Jones excluded — since Rory McIlroy and Russell Knox had 63s in 2014. Nobody in the field last year shot better than a 66.
And Henley and Wise still walked off the course three shots back.
“That’s an amazing round,” Wise said. “But I felt like I played one, too.”
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, Scott Harrington, Kevin Chappell, Joseph Bramlett and Cameron Davis shot 66. Defending champion Sungjae Im opened with a 68.
Jones had the four consecutive birdies on Nos. 2-5, had others on the par-4 11th and par-4 13th, then finished with birdies on each of his final three holes and never dropped a shot despite The Honda’s usual windy conditions.
Adam Hadwin, who played in Jones’ group, said “good shot” more times than he could count.
“I just stopped saying it at a certain point,” Hadwin said. “He just hit so many, you just stop saying it. You’re just under the assumption that it was good.”
Jones has one PGA TOUR victory, that coming with a chip-in to win a playoff at the 2014 Houston Open. He hasn’t made the cut in a major since the 2016 Open Championship and has never finished better than tied for fourth at The Honda, doing that in his debut at the event in 2008.
“Whatever Matt Jones is doing, I want to see it because 61 out there is incredible,” said Shane Lowry, who shot 67 in his opening round. “That’s just incredible.”
It was still a befuddling day for many. Graeme McDowell played the “Bear Trap” stretch — the par-3 15th, par-4 16th and par-3 17th — in 6 over, after making a quadruple bogey at 15 and a double bogey on 17. And Hunter Mahan had a six-hole stretch in which he made, in order, eagle, bogey, bogey, triple bogey, bogey, birdie.
Mahan finished at 77, McDowell at 79.
“It’s just so hard, so tricky,” Lowry said. “There’s a lot of disaster holes.”
Jones, at least for one day, avoided them all.
“It was a very good day,” he said.