PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Have some pity in your heart for Nicolai Hojgaard. The Danish 20-year-old, playing in his first ever PGA Tour event, and his first professional event ever on American soil, ran into a juggernaut. We’re not talking about another player here, but a course: The PGA Resort and Spa Championship Course, to be exact, and while that name is innocuous and even a little boring, the actual reality is about as dull as a nightmare. This place is—pardon the pun—a bear. And that’s before you get to the bear trap.
Hojgaard has been tearing it up on the DP World Tour, scoring two outright victories and two more top 10s since last September, and together with his twin brother Rasmus, he’s one of the young Europeans mentioned every time the topic of future Ryder Cup stars comes up. He’s already 73rd in the world, and there are few very young players who generate quite as much excitement abroad. But as far as debuts go, this was like fighting your first boxing match at the Roman Colosseum. Against the lions.
It started with an opening nine 40, and the best thing you could say about that 40 was that it could have been worse—on two different par-4s, he rescued par after an errant drive forced him to lay up short of the green. He looked positively dismal as he walked to the 10th tee, head down and silent, and after he sprayed yet another drive left on 10, leading to yet another bogey, all he could do was sulk down the fairway spinning his driver in slow circles like a policeman twirling a baton. His talent was evident at various points on the back, such as an absurd 186-yard approach over the water to nine feet on the 11th, but none of it amounted to much.
Granted, Hojgaard’s game was off, but the course didn’t help. This is the kind of place that exacerbates every error, and by the time his round was suspended due to darkness with his tee shot in the rough on 18, he languished at six over par. Peek down the leader board, though, and you could almost call him lucky.
Matthew Wolff, coming off a promising fall and a T-6 in Saudi Arabia in his last start, finished last in the entire field. He actually shot even on the Bear Trap—holes 15, 16, and 17—but a double-bogey finish on 18 consigned him to a disastrous 81. Like Hojgaard, he didn’t stop to chat with reporters after his round (and it would have felt sadistic to ask), but his expression as he staggered to the finish was all the message you needed. The best he can hope is that a day like Thursday will slip from his head, and not serve as some kind of psychological bludgeon as he attempts to recover from the toughest stretch of his career.
“I would much prefer the grind and scores not being as low,” Rickie Fowler said in his pre-tournament presser. “Typically it’s not a golf course where guys really run away and shoot very low. Sometimes you’ll see someone get off to a hot start for two days, but typically it doesn’t really run much on the weekends or the score doesn’t really keep going further under par. It tests you in all aspects of your game, especially when you have the standard 10- to 15-mile-an-hour wind, it’s all you want.”
Turns out, it might have been a bit more than Fowler wanted on Thursday. For 17 holes, he fought the course to a draw, and then, on the unforgiving par-5 18th, he got a bit too ambitious going for the green in two, found the water, and finished with a 7. That’s the rub here—Jack Nicklaus’ design is full of temptations that can lead to serious trouble, and full of allegedly “safe” plays that don’t leave you much better off. The 11th hole is a perfect example. The second shot takes you over water, and if you want a realistic birdie attempt, you have to play it close to the hazard. Otherwise, the conservative play leaves you in the middle of the green looking down a steep hill, and the prospect of trying to stop the birdie attempt anywhere close is far-fetched.
The Honda took down more than a few big names in the opening round: Wolff, Hudson Swafford (whose win at The American Express a few weeks ago must have felt like ancient history), Martin Kaymer, and Stewart Cink all finished at +8 or worse, while the +4 club included Sungjae Im, Zach Johnson, Brendon Todd, and too many others to name. At the moment, the cut sits at +1 and with every possibility of getting worse on Friday. For comparison’s sake, the previous cut lines at this year’s full-field PGA Tour events have been -5, -7, -3, -5, -2, and even par at Riviera.
This is a new level of pain, and while a handful of players excelled in the cauldron, all they’ve really done is survive the first day of four. There’s only one thing for the survivors to do now: Rest up, and pray the wind doesn’t blow.