The beauty of a course like PGA National is that no lead is safe. Both Matt Jones and Aaron Wise have found this out in excruciating fashion over the first three rounds at the Honda Classic.
First, it was Jones, who matched the course record on Thursday with a nine-under 61, which gave him a three-shot lead at day’s end. The following day, the 40-year-old Aussie shot 70, nine shots “worse” than the day prior, which put him three off the 36-hole lead.
The man Jones was suddenly chasing was Wise, who had gone 64-64 to reach 12 under, then began his third round with two birdies on his first four holes. Bang, just like that, Wise was running away at breakneck speed, six shots up.
At an equally swift pace, Wise’s massive lead began to vanish. At the par-4 sixth, the former NCAA individual champ three-putted from 11 feet for double bogey. At the very next hole he missed a seven-footer for par to drop another shot. Bogeys at 10 and 15 dropped him all the way to nine under. Jones, meanwhile, was clawing back making birdies at 11, 14, then parring his way home to shoot 69 and post 10 under.
Not only was Jones’ 69 good enough for the lead, it was good enough for a three-shot lead. Wise continued to limp his way home, making bogeys at 17 and 18 to drop into a tie for second at seven under. To recap, Jones led by three Thursday night, then trailed by three Friday night, then trailed by six early on Saturday, and now leads by three. That is … wild, stressful, insane, chaotic, all of the above.
And it’s exactly why nothing would shock us on Sunday. At this course, a double-digit lead might not even be safe.
Three other takeaways from a tough Round 3 at the Honda Classic.
J.B. Holmes from the clouds
Remember J.B. Holmes? Of course you do, but for the wrong reason: (Whispers) His pace of play, which was once again referred to as “deliberate” on the broadcast Saturday. Translation—slow as hell but deliberate sounds nicer.
We got another taste of Holmes’ tortoise-like pace in the third round, only because he thrust himself into serious contention with a three-under 67 to reach seven under. If that feels surprising, it should, because Holmes has been a ghost since his 2019 Genesis Invitational victory.
In 32 starts since, Holmes has not registered a single top-10 and missed 12 cuts. A shoulder injury has caused much of his on-course problems, but his performance so far this week would indicate he may finally be back at full health. After two years of doing almost nothing, Holmes is now in prime position to pick up a sixth PGA Tour win, and it would mean his last two wins are at Riviera and PGA National. That’d be unbelievably impressive, even if it takes six hours to watch.
Bear Trap bites Sungjae, but a title defense is in his sights
At five under, just five back, Sungjae Im has got everybody ahead of him right where he wants them. It’s an eerily similar situation to a year ago, when Im began the final round three off the lead of Tommy Fleetwood in Palm Beach Gardens. He then proceeded to shoot a four-under 66 in brutal conditions that included a pair of clutch birdies at 15 and 17 that would have had Bill Raftery screaming “ONIONS!!!!!” if he was on the call.
On Saturday, though, Im did not birdie 15 or 17, and at the 17th his chances of winning took a significant hit when his tee shot turned up as a fried egg in the back left bunker. His only option from there was to aim well left of the flag and away from the water, and Im wound up blasting it over the back of the green, which eventually led to a double. A year after making a heartstopping birdie that helped him win on the 17th, a double on the same hole may cause him to not defend his title.
But, luckily, Im has one more round to avenge the bad bunker break, and to potentially go back to back, something no player has done since the event moved to this course in 2007.
Phil Mickelson claims he’s making “progress”
You probably didn’t notice, but Phil Mickelson is in the field this week. You probably also didn’t notice he made the cut. Even with his 44 PGA Tour wins, it’s hard to pay any mind to a player who’s been a non-factor over the last seven months, at least on the big tour.
But Mickelson, who has not finished any better than T-35 in nine starts this season, insisted on Saturday that he’s making progress. He was, of course, coming off a second straight sub-70 round, which has him at two under, eight shots off the lead. He’s not going to win, but given how his results this season look, making the weekend and continuing to push forward is certainly a sign of the progress he spoke of.
“I’m seeing lot of progress, even though most people just look at the results,” said Mickelson. “[They] look at the score and say, ‘gosh, he’s playing well, he’s not playing well.’ I’ve seen a lot of progress. I have not played well for some time now for a couple of—I would even say a couple of years—and I’m starting to see glimpses of playing at the level I expect to again.”
Mickelson is always selling something, always trying to speak things into existence. So it can be hard to believe him when he says things like this. But he did post his best finish of the season at the Players Championship (T-35), and he’s on track to post another solid finish this week at an equally, if not more difficult track. All that said, his stats this week would indicate he’s still a long ways off (Lefty ranks 98th or worse in all six strokes-gained categories). But one could argue he’s hanging in there without his best stuff, and if he gets it all to click he still has high-level golf left in him.
“The results aren’t showing that right now,” said. “I’ve thrown away probably four, five shots on two or three holes the first day and the second day and that has not allowed me to be in contention. But I’ve hit a lot more good shots than I have in a long time, I’ve addressed some of the issues in my game that seem to be starting to come along and so, although the results aren’t showing it yet, I’m very excited about what’s ahead, because I see the progress, even though the scores aren’t necessarily reflecting it fully.”
With the Masters looming, any progress is good for the three-time green jacket winner. Perhaps the results he’s seeking will show up then, which would be ideal.