Tiger Woods, other marquee players confident as Honda Classic prepares to tee off

There was a strange sighting Wednesday at PGA National Resort & Spa.

Tiger Woods was playing in the Honda Classic pro-am, and for one of the few times he has been on a golf course he did not have the largest gallery following him.

That honor went to Phil Mickelson — and by a large margin.

For both Woods and Mickelson, Wednesday’s pro-am was an opportunity to gather course knowledge and tune up their games for the 2014 Honda, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.

Without hesitation, Woods and Mickelson — the most recognizable active players in the world — said after Wednesday’s round that they are more than ready.

Said Mickelson: “I’m excited. This feels to me like the start of the year because I feel good. I’m healthy. I’m able to swing it well. I feel strong and ready to play some good golf.”

Said Woods: “I was pleasantly surprised by how well I was hitting it out there.”

For Mickelson, 43 and ranked No. 5 in the world, playing at PGA National, for practical purposes, is a completely new experience.

“I did play here once,” he said, “when I was a junior golfer. But that was years before Jack Nicklaus renovated the course.”

Woods, 38 and No. 1 in the world, is a little more familiar with the course compared with Mickelson since this will be his third consecutive appearance in the Honda, coinciding with his move to nearby Jupiter Island several years ago.

“I love playing here,” Woods said. “It’s always nice to be in your own bed, in your own home. This is my new home and I absolutely love it down here.”

Mickelson and Woods both know they will have to deal with the famous — well, infamous might be more appropriate — Bear Trap, a stretch of three holes that usually has greatly influenced Honda outcomes. Those holes would be the water-filled trio of Nos. 15, 16 and 17.

Two of those holes are par-3s, the 179-yard 15th and 190-yard 17th, with a treacherous 434-yard par 4 between them.

“It’s a strong finish,” Mickelson said. “I mean, it’s a very strong finish. I love how you go through those three difficult holes and then you get a par-5 to finish and maybe make up some ground with a birdie. It’s always led to an exciting end.

“The tournament is never over with the severe penalty of a mis-hit shot in that stretch.”

Woods was asked about The Bear Trap and the possibility of him winning the tournament. His reply was that winning is the end all and be all, and playing The Bear Trap is part of that.

“If I hit it great and win, or if I slap it all over the place and win — I win. That’s the intent,” he said.

One person who knows about the ups and downs of both PGA National and golf in general is Rory McIlroy, one of seven of the world’s top 10 players in this year’s field.

In 2012, McIlroy held off a furious charge by Woods, who shot a final-round 62 that included two eagles. McIlroy shot a 69 on that Sunday to win the tournament by two shots and also move into the world’s No. 1 ranking at the age of 22.

The Honda Classic was all glory to him.

A year later, the Honda Classic was all disappointment to him.

In 2013, McIlroy felt the downside of golf, PGA National’s wrath and his own faltering abilities.

In the second round, as he was 7-over-par for the day through eight holes, he unceremoniously walked off the course, blaming a toothache.

On Wednesday, after the pro-am, he shed further light — and apologized again — for his actions.

“Obviously, my game wasn’t where I needed it to be,” he said. “It was just a very difficult time. I needed to change a couple of things in my game, but there were a lot of things I needed to change off the course also.

“You should never walk off the golf course, no matter how bad things are. I felt I couldn’t cope with anything more.”

Then he added with a smile, “The way I was going I was going to shoot 90. That’s the last thing I needed.”

He added, “It wasn’t my finest hour, but I’ve learned from it and moved on.”

Then he ended his mea culpa by making a promise.

“It will never happen again,” he said.

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