Strong finish at Doral often a springboard for golfers to have stellar season

Defending champion Dustin Johnson talks to fellow players as he warms up on the driving range as he prepares for the WGC Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral, in Miami, Florida, March 2, 2016.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson talks to fellow players as he warms up on the driving range as he prepares for the WGC Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral, in Miami, Florida, March 2, 2016.

Maybe it’s the quality of the field, golf’s version of A Great Day in Harlem.

Maybe it’s the occasional nastiness of Trump National Doral’s The Blue Monster.

But if you want to find a golfer to bet on as a major winner, you’d do worse than checking out the top three at the annual PGA event in Doral, in its sixth year as the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship. Thursday’s first groups tee off at 11:10 a.m.

Bubba Watson won the Masters in 2012 and 2014 after finishing second each year at the Cadillac Championship. Rory McIlroy won his first major, the 2012 PGA, months after finishing behind Watson and Justin Rose at Doral. Two of the four golfers who tied for third at Doral in 2013, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, went on to win that year’s Masters and British Open, respectively.

After Dustin Johnson’s comeback to win last year’s Cadillac Championship from as far back as a day of his tee shots, five strokes, he won the U.S. Open. Or, rather, Johnson had the U.S. Open won until he three-putted from 12 feet and finished tied for second behind current world No. 1 Jordan Spieth.

Of course, to talk the ultimate outlier, Tiger Woods rolled off his last six majors from 2005 to ’08 as he won three consecutive years at Doral and finished second in 2008.

The Cadillac’s lineup looks like that of a major with the qualifier winners subtracted. Of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings, 47 will spend the weekend in Doral, the type of lineup you expect for a WGC event. The rankings determine the Thursday and Friday threesomes so the best of the best spend at least 36 holes with each other.

That means extra buzz and extra need to focus.

“There’s going to be a lot of people out there,” Jason Day said of his threesome with Spieth and McIlroy. “I’ve just got to try to get in my own little world out there.”

Defending Masters champion Spieth, who recently spent a weekend at Augusta, gave the idea that the Cadillac Championship sits on the Masters side of a psychological line in the PGA Tour schedule.

“When we leave the West Coast and come over to Florida and then in Texas, that’s when I think, OK, it’s time to get ready for the Masters. That’s just me,” he said.

“The West Coast seems like its own kind of part of the schedule and it did last year, too. We came into here after playing [Augusta]. You get the excitement from just being there and playing a couple of rounds at Augusta National.”

Watson’s instinctive approach to the game — “I’m never changing my game for a certain tournament. I play 20 tournaments a year, so that means 20 different swing and thoughts I’ve got to figure out” — theoretically removes any event-to-event result correlation.

Then again, maybe not.

“The golf course is very difficult and, this year — I only played nine holes [Tuesday] — but it’s playing softer, so it’s playing a lot longer right now,” Watson said.

“So it’s about short game. Around a long golf course, it’s all about short game and somehow trusting your 5-iron and your 6-iron, that it goes somewhat straight so that I can somewhat make pars around this golf course.”

Winning the majors tends to come down to the short game (right, Johnson?).

“It’s very good practice for respecting a golf course,” Spieth said.

“[Caddy] Michael [Greller] told me, hey, the difference I saw in the recent few events versus your major championships last year — where I felt like I played my best golf of the year — was the respect you had for the golf course and not taking too many chances, let them just come to you, and then when you start to really get into a rhythm, then you can take a couple of chances.

“Here, if you try to take a couple of chances that you shouldn’t, it’s not just bogey that comes into play,” he added. “You make sixes and sevens. I think I’ve even made an eight here on a par-4 before.

“Because of the trouble, short, long, left and right on almost every hole, you really have to pick your spots and make sure that you miss [the trouble],” he said. “You have to make sure that you’re leaving yourself below the hole with simple pitches. Even if it’s not firing at the hole.

“And that’s what I’m talking about. That I need to start doing more of that as we play tougher golf courses and prepare for the majors.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

WGC-Cadillac Championship

When, where: Thursday through Sunday; Trump National Doral.

Course: Blue Monster, par-72, 7,543 yards.

Purse: $9,500,000 (winner’s share $1,612,432).

2015 champion: Dustin Johnson, 9-under-par 279.

TV: Thursday: Golf Channel, 2-6 p.m.; Friday: Golf Channel, 2-6 p.m.; Saturday: NBC, 2-6 p.m.; Sunday: NBC, 3-7 p.m.

Tickets: Weekly grounds tickets $187.25. Children 18 or under free with a ticketed adult. For more information:

Schedule: Thursday: Gates open at 9 a.m.; first round tees off at 11:15 a.m.; Friday: Gates open at 9 a.m.; second round tees off at 11:15 a.m.; Saturday: Gates open at 7:30 a.m.; third round tees off at 8:30 a.m.; Sunday: Gates open at 7:30 a.m.; fourth and final round tees off at 9:30 a.m. Awards ceremony on 18th green after tournament ends.

Five players to watch

Rory McIlroy: During last year’s second round at Doral, McIlroy flung his 3-iron into the lake along the eighth hole after his approach shot found water. He’ll try to keep his clubs dry this year as he looks to bounce back from missing the cut last week at the Honda Classic. McIlroy should rebound nicely ahead of the Masters, where a win would complete a career grand slam for the four-time major champion.

Jordan Spieth: Spieth likely won’t earn a top finish at Doral, but he will be in the must-see group as he plays with McIlroy and Jason Day over the first two days. Even on a course that’s not designed to Spieth’s strengths, he will aim to improve on a poor performance in Los Angeles. Only a few weeks remain before Spieth begins his title defense in Augusta.

Dustin Johnson: Johnson could have made a case for a Big Four if not for his three-putt at Chambers Bay during the 2015 U.S. Open. He will look to gear up for this year’s major slate by attempting to join Tiger Woods as the only players in WGC history to successfully defend their titles. Johnson won last year’s WGC-Cadillac Championship by one stroke.

Rickie Fowler: Fowler might be the trendiest pick to break through and capture his first major championship this year. The 27-year-old American played a flawless first two rounds in Palm Beach Gardens last week, but he struggled to the finish line. He’s not just a player to watch this week, he’s one to keep your eye on for the rest of the season.

Patrick Reed: Reed called himself “one of the top five players in the world” after he won the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship, and the long-hitting, 25-year-old from San Antonio could end up in contention again this weekend. He’s not shy about expressing himself on the golf course, and his reactions might be as entertaining as his shots.

Thursday’s first-round tee times

Tee No. 1

11:10 a.m.: Kristoffer Broberg, Scott Hend, Fabian Gomez.

11:21 a.m.: K.T. Kim, Andy Sullivan, Bernd Wiesberger.

11:32 a.m.: Jamie Donaldson, Nathan Holman, Scott Piercy.

11:43 a.m.: George Coetzee, Danny Lee, Steven Bowditch.

11:54 a.m.: Jason Dufner, Robert Streb, Victor Dubuisson.

12:05 p.m.: Billy Horschel, Graeme McDowell, Bill Haas.

12:16 p.m.: Shane Lowry, Jimmy Walker, Kevin Na.

12:27 p.m.: Zach Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen.

12:38 p.m.: Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Henrick Stenson.

12:49 p.m.: Patrick Reed, Branden Grace, Sergio Garcia.

1 p.m.: Marc Leishman, Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey.

Tee No. 10

11:10 a.m.: Kevin Kisner, Phil Mickelson, J.B. Holmes.

11:21 a.m.: Hideki Matsuyama, Danny Willett, Brandt Snedeker.

11:32 a.m.: Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy.

11:43 a.m.: Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott.

11:54 a.m.: Charl Schwartzel, Justin Thomas, Anirban Lahiri.

12:05 p.m.: Martin Kaymer, Daniel Berger, Ross Fisher.

12:16 p.m.: Harris English, Chris Wood, Matthew Fitzpatrick.

12:27 p.m.: Charley Hoffman, Emiliano Grillo, Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

12:38 p.m.: Yusaku Miyazato, David Lingmerth, Smylie Kaufman.

12:49 p.m.: Russell Knox, Byeong-Hun An, Jordan Zunic.

1 p.m.: Soren Kjeldsen, Marcus Fraser, Rafa Cabrera Bello.

Winners at Doral

2015 — Dustin Johnson, 279

2014 — Patrick Reed, 284

2013 — Tiger Woods, 269

2012 — Justin Rose, 272

2011 — Nick Watney, 272

2010 — Ernie Els, 270

2009 — Phil Mickelson, 269

2008 — Geoff Ogilvy, 271

2007 — Tiger Woods, 270

2006 — Tiger Woods, 261

*2005 — Tiger Woods, 270

2004 — Ernie Els, 270

2003 — Tiger Woods, 274

2002 — Tiger Woods, 263

2001 — Joe Durant, 270

2000 — Mike Weir, 277

*1999 — Tiger Woods, 278

1998 — Michael Bradley, 278

1997 — Steve Elkington, 275

1996 — Greg Norman, 269

1995 — Nick Faldo, 273

1994 — John Huston, 274

1993 — Greg Norman, 265

1992 — Raymond Floyd, 271

*1991 — Rocco Mediate, 276

*1990 — Greg Norman, 273

1989 — Bill Glasson, 275

1988 — Ben Crenshaw, 274

1987 — Lanny Wadkins, 277

*1986 — Andy Bean, 276

1985 — Mark McCumber, 284

1984 — Tom Kite, 272

1983 — Gary Koch, 271

1982 — Andy Bean, 278

1981 — Raymond Floyd, 273

*1980 — Raymond Floyd, 279

1979 — Mark McCumber, 279

1978 — Tom Weiskopf, 272

1977 — Andy Bean, 277

1976 — Hubert Green, 270

1975 — Jack Nicklaus, 276

1974 — Buddy Allin, 272

1973 — Lee Trevino, 276

1972 — Jack Nicklaus, 276

1971 — J.C. Snead, 275

1970 — Mike Hill, 279

1969 — Tom Shaw, 276

1968 — Gardner Dickinson, 275

1967 — Doug Sanders, 275

1966 — Phil Rodgers, 278

1965 — Doug Sanders, 274

1964 — Billy Casper, 277

1963 — Dan Sikes, 283

1962 — Billy Casper, 283

*Won in playoff

Related stories from Miami Herald