PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Who said there weren’t enough stars in the Honda Classic field?
After much was made of a condensed schedule cutting into the tournament’s roster, Thursday’s opening round at PGA National featured a pair of multi-time major winners near the top of the leaderboard.
They just weren’t the names most expected.
World Golf Hall of Fame member Ernie Els and two-time major champion Zach Johnson each shot 4-under 66 in the morning wave and were tied for second by mid-afternoon, two shots behind outright leader Jhonattan Vegas.
The wind was relatively calm — not traditional “Honda wind,” according to Johnson — but the Champion Course doesn’t let up much.
“It just requires every muscle in your body, specifically your brain, to navigate it,” Johnson said.
Said Els: “That freaking 15th hole is no good at all on this golf course.”
Els was making light of his lone mess-up hole, a double-bogey 5 after rinsing his tee shot at the demanding par-3 15th. The 49-year-old from South Africa made birdie on his first hole of the day, No. 10, and had six birdies overall.
He also took advantage of his pairing with Australia’s Adam Scott and Kiradech Aphibarnrat ahead of his stint as captain of the 2019 International Presidents Cup team.
“Nice to see them up close,” Els said. “Obviously (Scott) has been a great friend of mine for 20 years, Kiradech is a great player around the world and on the PGA Tour now. A lot of good stuff here.”
Johnson, 43, will be in the opposite team room having been named vice-captain by U.S. leader Tiger Woods. Like Els, he proved Thursday that he can still take it to the younger roster members on a given morning.
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Johnson had the more adventurous scorecard with five birdies, three bogeys and a bunker hole-out for an eagle 3 at the par-5 third hole.
“Very satisfied,” Johnson said. “I hit a lot of good shots, capitalized on a few of those, gave myself a lot of opportunities which, on a course like this, a facility like this, fairways and greens really works here.”
That’s not always the case in the bomb-and-gouge era, but PGA National demands it. Holding greens from the rough is a tall order, and experience doesn’t seem to play a factor as much as hitting quality shots.
Johnson reels off a list of past champions to emphasize the point, starting with Rickie Fowler (2017) and Justin Thomas (2018).
“We’ve seen everything. We’ve seen the young guys that haven’t played much here play well and win, and we’ve seen the experience shine through,” Johnson said.
“I think it’s a great ballstriking golf course. You have to hit the fairway, especially if it does get firm and no rain. Then you have to hit controlled spin shots into these greens. JT and Rickie, predominantly those guys are two of the best ballstrikers each and every year. So, no surprise there.”
Johnson and Els have experience and sound ballstriking for days, even if they don’t have much in common physically. Els is a towering figure who seems to glide atop the earth’s surface with a permanent wink and a grin. Johnson has an assassin’s glare behind the ever-present sunglasses and tight-brimmed hat.
Together they made an intriguing duo in the thick of contention, with more difficult conditions expected the rest of the week.
“I think it’s going to get a little tougher,” Els said. “A little firmer tomorrow, a little bit more wind, but I’ve just got to keep it in front of me.”