The Bear Trap at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion course at PGA National Resort & Spa has owned Brendan Steele for the better part of his career. He arrived at the 15th, the first of three consecutive menacing holes, 26 over par for his previous 31 attempts at the infamous stretch, and 12 over on the 15th alone.
But this time would be different. Steele gazed at the water-laden par-3, playing 178 yards on this day, and thought, “Great number,” he said. “It was just kind of as hard as I could hit an 8-iron.”
Steele, 36, launched a beauty that landed just shy of the hole and turned left for the cup. It looked to be an ace, but horseshoed out of the hole, stopping within kick in distance for a birdie that extended his lead. A hole-in-one would have won him a Honda, but nothing could deflate Steele as he signed for a 3-under 67 and a one-stroke lead over three players at the midway point of the Honda Classic.
“I wish it would have gone in, but I was happy to tap in and move on,” Steele said of his near ace at 15.
Despite a bogey at 18 after going for the green in two and finding the water, Steele grabbed his second solo 36-hole lead of the season and his 36-hole score of 5-under 135 is 17 strokes better than he fared through two rounds in the Honda last year.
“I felt this good at Sony and it paid off, and I’m feeling that way again,” said Steele, who lost the Sony Open in Hawaii in a sudden-death playoff to Cameron Smith last month.
J.T. Poston followed up 67 with a 69 on Friday morning and is tied for second with the English duo of Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, a pair of 40-somethings at 4-under 136. Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who made his Tour-best 33rdconsecutive cut is two strokes farther back after a 68.
That’s three Union Jacks bunched together and all bidding for a Tour title this weekend that would be a long time coming. Westwood, who was victorious earlier this year at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Championship, hasn’t won on U.S. soil since the 2010 FedEx St. Jude Invitational, while Donald’s last triumph was the 2012 Valspar Championship. And Fleetwood? He’s seeking his maiden victory on the PGA Tour.
PGA National, where the winning score of the Honda Classic has been in single digits in seven of the last nine years, is its typical torture chamber. But the unusually chilly temperatures and breezy conditions haven’t given Donald, Westwood and Fleetwood fits.
“A cold morning like this morning doesn’t really faze us too much,” Westwood explained. “We’re definitely not getting the snoods out and the beanies.”
Westwood, who turns 47 in April, is playing this week on a sponsor’s exemption that he requested from the tournament director last May at the PGA Championship. Westwood credited his resurgence to the work he’s done on his swing with swing instructor Robert Rock and with instructor Phil Kenyon on his putting.
Westwood started controlling his ball flight better since working with Rock in September, and Kenyon got Westwood to switch to the claw grip at about the same time. Westwood also has worked with a psychiatrist and adopted a more carefree attitude to the game.
“I’m not sure it’s ever been this enjoyable,” said Westwood after shooting 69 on Friday. “You know, I’ve always almost treated it too seriously. It’s nice to go out there and not really care.”
“Lee has obviously proven that age is just a number,” said Donald, 42, who began his round 3-over through five holes before posting eight birdies over his final 13 holes and tie for the low round of the tournament with a 66. “Obviously I’ve had a little bit of a lean period the last couple years, but just seeing those guys continue to grind and continue to fight and do well, you know, it’s nice to see, and certainly it motivates me.”
Younger, longer, more athletic players have emerged and knocked Donald and Westwood, two former World No. 1s who never managed to win a major, from the ranks of the Tour’s elite, but they’re proving they’re not done yet. Westwood told a colorful tale of what it is like for him to play with these young stars who are often half his age.
“They’ll say, ‘How long have you been out here? And I say, ‘This is my 28th season,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, right,’ and then I look at them, and I can see that they’re thinking, I’m only 24. Or, ‘When did you turn pro? 1993. How old are you? Oh, yeah, same age as my dad.’ That’s always a good one. I like that one. I just put a bit extra into the next drive and try to knock it past them.”
An already light field, with only one of the top-10 ranked players in the world electing to play this week, was dealt another blow when World No. 3 Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Rose were all dismissed after missing the 36-hole cut at 3-over 143. It marks the highest cut on Tour excluding majors since the 2018 Wells Fargo Championship. Only eight strokes separate first from last among the 69 players that will make the weekend.
“I’m looking forward to the grind this weekend,” Steele said. “I know it’s going to be really hard around here. There’s really no easy shots, so you’ve got to be ready.”