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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Justin Thomas set to enjoy Gardens party

Tiger Woods likely to struggle again

Justin Thomas appears to be peaking for a home game
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The US Tour has moved from west to east, leaving California behind and arriving in Florida, and Tiger Woods will again hog much of the early spotlight as he bids to rediscover his old form in the Honda Classic.

Woods missed the Genesis Open cut by four shots, a second-round 76 exposing the severe issues in his game, and some bookmakers are prepared to lay 80-1 about the 14-time Major champion winning the Honda. Rickie Fowler, a final-round flop in the Phoenix Open last time out, is defending champion at Palm Beach Gardens and 9-1 favourite.

Palmer's top tip
Justin Thomas 11-1

It is debatable whether anyone should be ahead of FedEx Cup champion and Player of the Year Justin Thomas in the betting for the Honda Classic and the world number four looks a juicy price to win his eighth US Tour title on Sunday.

Thomas is the highest ranked player in the field, by far the most prolific recent winner lining up, he knows the venue intimately, and he warmed up nicely with ninth place in the Genesis Open last week.

Thomas was entitled to make a slow start to this year after an epic 2017 in which he claimed a first Major title and won four other events. He did hardly any practice in November and December – counting his mountain of money and enjoying himself – and 2018 started badly when he lost his caddie through injury after two rounds at Kapalua.

Thomas relies on his caddie much more than most players – he has a superb relationship with Jimmy Johnson, who is one of the best bagmen in the business, and it must have been unsettling to have three different loopers (first his father Mike, then Jim Mackay, then putting coach Matt Killen) while Johnson recovered.

The pair were reunited in the Genesis last week and Thomas produced his best golf of the year. The USPGA champion was thrilled with the state of his game and is relishing a tournament on home turf this week. He moved to Palm Beach Gardens in December, 2014, so has countless rounds under his belt at PGA National.

Thomas finished third in the 2016 Honda, with four rounds in the 60s, then missed the cut by a shot last year after a terrible start to round one. The local lad should get out of the blocks quicker and give his fans plenty to cheer this week. This proven Florida performer, who finished third at Sawgrass in 2016, can flourish this week on another water-strewn Sunshine State layout and chalk up his first W of 2018.

Next best
Kevin Kisner 60-1

A sigh of relief was probably let out by Kevin Kisner after the Pebble Beach Pro-Am – he hates the West Coast swing of the US Tour and the bumpy putting surfaces which accompany it – and the South Carolina man should be much more of a factor in Florida.

The two-time US Tour champ has excelled in the Players Championship at Sawgrass, losing a 2015 playoff to Fowler, and he was second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last year. The Honda layout appears equally suitable to the talents of Kisner, even though humdrum form figures of 51-70-48 disguise the fact.

This could easily be the year Kisner does himself justice at PGA National, with self-belief peaking on the back of a career-best season. He won at Colonial, before contending for the USPGA and Tour Championship titles, then represented his country for the first time in America's Presidents Cup romp, where he was unbeaten in his four matches.

Other selection
Martin Kaymer 70-1

Woods is the former world number one who will get most attention over the first two days of the Honda, but another erstwhile top dog may have the cameras trained on him at the weekend. Martin Kaymer, bidding to rediscover the magic which made him the best player on the planet in 2011, is well suited to the PGA National assignment.

Kaymer must always be considered on difficult, typically windswept tracks, which require sound course management and a calm temperament. He won the 2014 Players Championship on a beastly Florida layout and can hang tough at PGA National, too.

Punters can ignore his share of 53rd place in the Genesis Open last week – contending on his course debut at a well-established venue like Riviera was always likely to be mission impossible – and a fifth start at the Honda will probably be more successful.

Kaymer tied for fourth place in this event last year and steady if unspectacular recent form hints that he is coming to the boil for another Honda title tilt. Third place in the 2010 WGC-CA Championship at Doral is further evidence of the German's comfort in Florida.

Others to note
Rickie Fowler
The defending champ and 2015 Sawgrass victor lives locally and must be respected, but he does not win as often as the other market principals. Obvious runner, but not enough juice in the price.

Rory McIlroy
The four-time Major champion left Riviera content with his game after finishing 20th and looking forward to playing close to his Palm Beach Gardens home. He won the 2012 Honda to become world number one, but that is his only Florida victory and he has missed the cut in his last two Honda starts.

Daniel Berger
The two-time US Tour champ is a born-and-bred Floridian who lost a playoff for the Honda three years ago. He won the 2009 FCWT National Championship, a top junior event, at PGA National, but suddenly and spectacularly lost his form at Riviera last week.

Bud Cauley
The housemate of Thomas also knows PGA National well. Strong from tee to green and should make a US Tour breakthrough at some stage.

Tommy Fleetwood
The Race to Dubai champion should enjoy the stiff tee-to-green challenge of PGA National but is making his course debut.

Sergio Garcia
The Masters champion obviously has the game to tame this track but motivation seems likely to be an issue this term. First baby is due next month.

Staking plan
J Thomas
3pts each-way 11-1 Coral
K Kisner
1pt each-way 60-1 Betfred
M Kaymer
1pt each-way 70-1 Betfred

The Lowdown 

Course PGA National (Champion Course), Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

Prize money $6.6m ($1.152m to the winner)

Length 7,110 yards  Par 70  Field 144

Course records – 72 holes 267 Camilo Villegas (2010) 18 holes 61 Brian Harman (2012)

Course winners taking part Camilo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini, Rory McIlroy, Michael Thompson, Russell Henley, Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler

When to bet By noon Thursday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 2pm Thursday

Time difference Florida is five hours behind the UK and Ireland

Last week – Genesis Open 1 B Watson (50-1), T2 K Na (100-1), T Finau (66-1), T4 P Cantlay (50-1), S Stallings (125-1), T6 A Hadwin (100-1), P Mickelson (25-1), C Smith (100-1)

Course overview The Champion Course is one of the toughest layouts on the US Tour and was designed by George Fazio with a view to staging major professional tournaments. The 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 USPGA Championship were held there, before Jack Nicklaus oversaw a 1990 redesign. The Honda Classic has been at this venue since 2007, with 72-hole totals of just six under par or worse enough to top the leaderboard on three occasions. The back nine is particularly difficult and pars are worth their weight in gold. The famous Bear Trap – a trio of brutal holes from the 15th to the 17th – are where the event is often won and lost. The two par-fives – the third and the 18th – are where players will expect to pick up shots on the card. The 365-yard, downhill par-four first is another golden birdie opportunity

Story of last year Rickie Fowler dominated the event, cruising to a four-shot victory despite bogeying the final two holes

Weather forecast Sunny with moderate breezes throughout

Type of player suited to challenge The Champion Course, with heavy bunkering and plenty of water hazards, is a strong tee-to-green test where only quality ball-striking will produce results

Key attribute Accuracy

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Thomas relies on his caddie much more than most players
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