McCabe: Wind changes complexion of PGA National

Tiger Woods, bottom right, along with playing partner David Lynn and their caddies try to search for Woods' ball at No. 17 during the Honda Classic on Saturday.

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – That hysteria you heard when Tiger Woods started with two birdies in three holes in Saturday’s third round of the Honda Classic? It could have been averted had folks known what players knew.

When it’s like this, “you have to get off to a good start,” said Brendan Steele, and for a reference point, “this” means a significant wind coming from the north and northwest. Players know that makes the opening holes at PGA National’s Champion Course easier than those on the back, which becomes hold-on-and-grit-your-teeth time.

So when Woods birdied the first and then the third? What should have settled over the stage was a feeling of “ho-hum,” because guess what? The 365-yard first hole was played second-easiest for the 75 who made the cut, with 16 birdies, 50 pars, just nine bogeys and a 3.907 field average. And the par-5 third? Goodness, that was the easiest, a 538-yard, par-5 pushover. The field average was a laughable 4.480 and Woods’ birdie was a two-putt from 40 feet, so it’s not as if it were electric stuff, not when five eagles and 37 other birdies were made there.

But to fair, to have that third hole as a respite is understandable, given that there aren’t many spots where you can take a rest when the wind is whipping at 15-25 mph. “It’s just hard,” said Steele, who shot 3-over 73 and felt as if he had played well.

In a way, he had. The field average sat at 73.053 when Steele finished, far tougher than Thursday (70.147) and Friday (70.475). Had you been in attendance those days and seen the parade of red numbers, you might have thought this heralded layout wasn’t as difficult as advertised, but therein sits the magic of that one golf course component that cannot be designed – even if you had Donald Trump’s money and the magic that is Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

Wind.

Oh, how it changes the complexion of many courses, especially PGA National.

“This golf course is probably not difficult if there’s no wind, but the problem is, the water that probably isn’t in play to a player who is playing well without wind, becomes in play when the wind comes up.”

When he finished with that, Steele smiled and asked, “Does that make sense?” and he was assured that it did. It means that this is one brutal test when the wind blows, because suddenly you feel like you’re at sea with so much water.

How watery is it?

We’re pretty sure the two women who are sitting on the floating scoreboard off the 18th green are prime candidates for seasickness, given the whitecaps that are rocking the setup. Good luck to them and also to the leaders who are expected to tackle a back nine in even fiercer wind than what Steele, Woods and the other early-goers faced.

Yet it was tough enough early that Steele knew the mood of the day.

“If you didn’t get the first couple holes, you were in trouble.”

Certainly, Steele didn’t follow that plan. He did birdie the third, but it would be his only one of the day. He bogeyed the fifth, then went bogey, double bogey on Nos. 10 and 11 before he settled down to play his way home with seven straight pars.

“There just aren’t any birdie holes on the back, when it’s like this,” Steele said.

No surprise, then, that Steele didn’t find any, but he can take solace in the fact that others were bruised and battered. Jason Bohn, for instance, shot 42 with a double bogey, five bogeys and two pars. Jamie Donaldson had 41 and Justin Hicks went for 40, as did Ernie Els.

Heck, even Woods – who was 3 under for eight holes – went for a 3-over 38 on the inward nine as he bogeyed 10 and hit a tee shot just shy of the water-guarded 17th green. Minutes later, he was on the way back to the tee to hit again.

“It was considered a lost ball because it embedded in the bank, but we didn’t know if the ball was in the hazard or not. So you don’t know, then it’s a lost ball,” Woods said.

At the time, Woods was 2 under in his round, 2 under for the tournament and just seven off the clubhouse lead. But after re-teeing and making a double bogey, whatever dream he had of winning this tournament was pretty much gone.

“I thought realistically 5- or 6-under would be a good score, and I thought if I posted that, I would be within (reach),” he said.

His mere presence, of course, attracted media attention, but the reality is, on this day he didn’t even beat his playing competitor, the unheralded David Lynn. The 39-year-old European PGA Tour veteran made nine pars coming home, shot 68 and at 2 under made the kind of move – subtle as it may have been – that Woods expected of himself.

Free to leave the premises and head up the road for lunch at his Jupiter mansion, Woods left PGA National to the leaders, who by now had a stronger wind and thus a tougher golf course to contend with. Chances are, it will make for compelling theater later in the afternoon, particularly at the watery 17th. Hard to believe it will be a challenge, given that players probably will have but a 9-iron in hand and 156 yards to navigate.

It didn’t appear to be much of a test early, with Matteo Manassero and Matt Jones making birdies, but when the third group came to the tee, Woods and Lynn faced a little tougher wind. Woods made double and a few groups later, Bohn also made double and Retief Goosen made bogey.

The danger had surfaced.

“Straight downwind with a front pin. It’s a hard shot, because you need to make sure you cover (Woods didn’t, nor did Bohn), but you don’t want to bounce in the back bunker, either. You have to be aggressive with your number and aggressive with your swing.”

Steele converted on both fronts and made par, something Woods wishes he could say.

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