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Matt Jones' remarkable 61, Henrik Stenson's shocking struggles and another ugly 11 gets posted

March 18, 2021
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Cliff Hawkins

Matt Jones plays his shot from the third tee during the first round of the Honda Classic.

It’s easy to be down on this year’s edition of the Honda Classic, with the once-strong tournament able to boast just a handful of the world’s top 50 players in the field. That’s the result of being sandwiched between a run of big events, including last week’s Players Championship and next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Something’s gotta give, after all.

Still, there are plenty of interesting storylines, from Lee Westwood trying to contend for a third straight week, to one of the most difficult courses on the PGA Tour and the calamity that often ensues at PGA National.

Thus, Thursday provided its share of entertainment. There was Matt Jones’ sizzling 61 to take a three-stroke lead, the yearly tradition of a player baring (mostly) all while hitting from one of the innumerable water hazards and much more.

Here are our observations from the opening round.

Matt Jones ties course record

Don’t bother asking Jones how many course records he owns. The 40-year-old Aussie hasn’t a clue.

“I’ve never kept track, and I wouldn't know,” he said. “It's like asking me if I have a hole-in-one. I couldn't tell you how many I've had. I've never kept track.”

Must be nice.

So, too, was his bogey-free nine-under 61 on a breezy but verdant day at PGA National, where he tied the course record of Brian Harman in 2012. Even more impressive was how Jones did it—by making birdie on each of the last three holes, a notoriously difficult stretch that includes a long par 3 over water and a par 5 with more agua hugging the right side of the hole.

None of it was a problem for Jones, who is used to playing in the wind and had a terrific day with his irons.

“It was probably one of the better ball-striking days with my irons that I've had for a long, long time,” he said. “Made a few putts, and to make a putt from off the green on 17 was good.”

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Cliff Hawkins

Lee Westwood plays a shot during the pro-am prior to the Honda Classic.

So was the rest of his day. Jones hit 14 greens and gained more than 2 1/2 strokes on the greens on the field. Of course it helped, too, that six of his birdies were set up by approaches that landed inside of seven feet.

Westwood finally cools off

It’s been a busy few weeks for Westwood, who had a chance to win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship each of the last two weeks before finishing second at both tournaments. Then came 54 holes at Augusta National over two days with his son Sam. Now this week’s Honda Classic.

Not that the 47-year-old Englishman ever thought about bailing on the latter. He used to live across the street, likes the tournament and last year finished fourth, one of two career top-5s he has had at PGA National.

But if he’s going to put himself in contention for a third straight week, it will take some work after an even-par 70 that leaves him T-43.

“It's a little bit tougher in the afternoon when you look through the scores,” Westwood said. “I think anybody probably would take under par or even even par as not disappointing.”

Especially with birdies on 17 and 18, where he stuck his tee shot to a few feet on the par 3, then reached the par-5 finishing hole in two before two-putting from 30 feet.

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Henrik Stenson, shown playing in the Players Championship, is looking at another missed cut this week.

It will be a quick turnaround for Westwood, who tees off in the fourth group of the day at 7:58 a.m. on Friday.

What in the world is wrong with Henrik Stenson?

Five years ago, Henrik Stenson won the Open Championship in a spectacular duel with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon. Less than a month later, he captured a silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

How times have changed.

While Stenson has just one victory since 2017—at the limited-field Hero World Challenge—far more alarming is his play of late.

A week ago, the Swede opened with an 85 at the Players Championship, where he missed the cut following a 74 the next day. On Thursday, he finds himself near the bottom of the leader board after scoring an eight-over 78 that included four bogeys and three doubles. Stenson somewhat salvaged the round by making birdie on his last two holes.

Though he hasn’t disclosed any sort of injury, one has to wonder if there’s not something ailing the 44-year-old. He’s had his share of injuries before.

But the former world No. 1’s struggles also go beyond just the past couple of weeks.

In his nine rounds this year, the 11-time European Tour and six-time PGA Tour winner has yet to break par. He has missed the cut in all four starts and is well on his way to another at PGA National.

The end of last year wasn’t much better, either. In his final 11 starts of 2020, he missed the cut five times and withdrew once. His best finish was a T-21 at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.

So, what’s wrong with Stenson? Good question.

Getting all wet

Last year's Honda Classic featured the most water balls of any course on tour with 339 for the week. Whether that number is eclipsed this year remains to be seen, but so far things are off to a wet start.  

With water in play off the tee and on on approaches on several holes at PGA National, there were already 68 balls in the drink before play was even finished for the day.

Some players were able to play from the wet stuff—Adam Scott ditched his socks and shoes, Sebastian Cappelen his shirt and Vijay Singh just left everything on including his shoes.

Most notable, however, was Brian Stuard. He became the second player in as many weeks to make an 11 on a hole, doing so on the par-3 17th, where his tee shot came up short in the water before he deposited two more into the hazard from around the green.