Relative unknown Jim Herman leads Honda Classic golf tournament

Jim Herman plays his shot on the eighth tee during the first round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort & Spa - Champion Course on February 26, 2015 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Jim Herman plays his shot on the eighth tee during the first round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort & Spa - Champion Course on February 26, 2015 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Getty Images

The Honda Classic is filled with golf’s elite names, but the guy at the top of the leaderboard after Thursday’s first round will make even the most ardent of golf fans say, “Who the heck is that?”

The first-round leader was not Rory McIlroy, not Phil Mickelson, not Sergio Garcia, not Rickie Fowler ... not any of the 16 golfers competing who are ranked in the world’s top 25.

Your first-day leader is Jim Herman, a not-so-well-known professional. OK, let’s be accurate and honest. He’s pretty much a complete unknown. Even Herman, with a smile, doesn’t deny that.

“It was a little unexpected to get to 5-under,” he said sheepishly of his round of 5-under-par 65 on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa. “I was just trying to keep it around par. If you get a birdie and sneak in at minus-1 or 2, that would be great.”

Herman, 37, has never won a PGA Tour event. In the Official World Golf Rankings he checks in at 394th. So, being eight strokes ahead of world No. 1 McIlroy, who shot 3-over 73, is a pretty big deal.

Herman himself seemed startled, maybe even a little befuddled, at what he had just accomplished following his round.

A nice putt on No. 16, part of the infamous Bear Trap on the Champion Course, was one of the keys to his round, according to Herman. “It was about 25 or 30 feet,” Herman said. “Just a nice, unexpected birdie. You really don’t anticipate those going in.”

Just to show how long of a long shot Herman is, it was on Monday while playing in a qualifier to make the Honda field that he got a phone call while preparing to tee off on the fourth hole.

Honda officials were calling to tell him he had made the Honda field without having to play the qualifier.

Herman immediately picked up his ball and headed for PGA National to register and get in a few practice swings.

As the world’s top golfer, McIlroy easily drew the first day’s largest gallery since Tiger Woods is out with an ailing back. But Thursday’s round was a battle with each swing for McIlroy.

The day before the tournament, McIlroy said, “I can see 63, 64, 65 out there.”

He must have great vision because his 3-over 73 was far, far away from those predicted scores.

McIlroy isn’t out of contention, but he has put himself in a difficult position and will need that predicted 63, 64 or 65 to climb back up the leaderboard.

“The conditions were very tricky from the start,” McIlroy said of winds that hovered in the 20-mph range and gusted up to 34 mph. “I feel like I salvaged something out of the round on the last couple of holes, but it was a day to just keep trying, not to give up.

“When nothing’s going your way and you don’t really have anything to feed off of ... it was a grind out there.”

Brendan Steele, like Herman, not widely known, held second place by himself at 32-34—66.

That was followed by a three-way tie for third, two strokes back at 67, between Patrick Reed, last year’s winner of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Champion at Doral, Padraig Harrington and Martin Flores.

Steele, 31, is a one-time winner on the PGA Tour.

He escaped serious trouble on No. 14 when he splashed his drive into the water, dropped, and then hit it into the water a second time.

“I was looking at making double or triple for sure but holed it from 35 yards or something like that,” Steele said. “So I ended up making bogey, which out here is fine. After that, I just played really nice. So that was my one big mistake.”

Phil Mickelson, at 44, continued to have his putter plague him in shooting a 1-over 71.

“I feel like tee to green the game was really good, and I hope I keep it there and just need to work a bit on the greens,” Mickelson said. “I putted great in the offseason but started this season terribly. Just trying to put it all together.

“I can putt as great as possible back home, but until you come out on Thursday ... you need to make putts and see the right line and get the right speed and everything has to match up.

“In the tournament is when it counts.”

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