Winds rough up field at PGA National
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Luke Donald has a home just a few miles up the road from PGA National, and despite the sunny skies and warm temperatures, he doubts he'd have been out playing golf Thursday if it were not required.
"I wouldn't play in this," said the Englishman, who is ranked third in the world and is coming off a victory Sunday at a venue where it snowed in the morning and hail came down during the afternoon.
The conditions on the Champion Course during the first round of the Honda Classic were not bone-rattling, nor fever-inducing.
But they were nonetheless frustrating.
A spectator might have enjoyed the sunshine and warm breezes, but the wind was gusting up to 35 mph and causing fits.
"It was tough," said Donald, who shot a 3-over-par 73. "I grinded it out pretty well. I'll take that 3 over. I could have easily let that round go."
Spencer Levin, who lost in a playoff Sunday at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico and is playing his eighth straight week, somehow managed to shoot a 67. He played in the morning and felt pretty good about the effort. Five players shot 68.
The conditions made those scores impressive. The scoring average of 73.752 was more than 3.7 strokes over par, making it easily the hardest day so far this year on the PGA Tour in relation to par.
Adam Scott played 16 of the holes in even par but was 7 over on two others, the par-3 15th and 17th, two of the three holes that make up the famed Bear Trap. He hit a total of three balls into the water on those holes and walked off with a 77 when he otherwise played pretty well.
"That's what those holes are all about," Scott said.
World No. 2 Lee Westwood shot 70, as did 54-year-old three-time major champion Nick Price, but several other highly ranked players in the field struggled. Louis Oosthuizen shot 75, as did Ernie Els. Ross Fisher had 76, and defending champion Camilo Villegas shot 79. Chris DiMarco shot 82 and withdrew.
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Michael Bradley was the only player in the field to get to 4 under par during his round -- and did so through five holes. Then he played the next four holes in 5 over and was 10 over for his last 13 to shoot 76.
"If you aren't playing well, it really does find you out," Fisher said. "Anything at 70 or better is a great score. If you are slightly off, you really are struggling."
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy was pleased with 73. He made just one birdie, but he managed to avoid disaster. He estimated the wind made a difference of 35 yards on holes downwind or directly into the wind.
That's why he hit a 5-iron from 245 yards on the par-3 fifth hole; normally he hits that club 205 yards.
"Anything around level par today was going to be really good," said McIlroy, 21. "It's one of those days where you just have to hang in there. You have to accept that you are going to have to get up and down a lot. Putting was very difficult. Just trusting it, being decisive. I had a lot of really nice putts, and the wind blew them one way or the other. I was really pretty happy with the day."
It reminded him somewhat of the second round last summer at St. Andrews, where, after opening the British Open with a major championship record-tying 63, McIlroy ballooned to an 80 in the second round as windy conditions that at one point halted play caused grief for everyone. McIlroy tied for third despite that 17-shot difference.
Thursday at PGA National was not as bad because St. Andrews is far more exposed, but the wind gusts still caused havoc.
"I learned a lot from that," he said. "I always think about that day when I'm playing in conditions like this. You have to realize that maybe 74, 75 isn't a bad score. You just hang in there and make pars, try to hit it to the middle of the greens and two putt. Even though that day was a very bad day in my career, it actually did me a world of good for days like today where I can just hang in there and grind it out."
Then there was Price, playing his first PGA Tour event in three years. Price, now a Champions Tour regular, decided to take his one-time exemption for being among the top 50 money winners all time on the PGA Tour. He lives nearby, so he decided to play the Honda Classic.
Dealing with Thursday's conditions was not what he had in mind, but he has been one of the game's best ball strikers and it showed in his even-par round of 70.
"I've always prided myself on being a good wind player," Price said. "I kind of wore my long irons out. This is a very long course for me. But it's U.S. Open-type conditions, and playing patient is very important."
Stuart Appleby took perhaps the best approach. He wasn't thinking about much of anything on his way to one of the day's best scores, a 2-under 68.
"That's one of the secrets," he said. "I knew it was pretty difficult. I have seen this course blow like this in this direction. Still doesn't make you feel comfortable.
"This is South Florida this time of year."
And just to make things even more interesting: The wind is expected to blow plenty hard Friday, too.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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