It says it there on the giant plaque as you walk off the 14th green at PGA National, engraved in glistening gold all-cap lettering: “It should be won or lost right here.” If the words of course architect Jack Nicklaus don’t intimidate you, maybe the two-and-a-half-metre-tall menacing statue of a bear standing beside them will.

“Here” is the 15th, 16th and 17th holes at the PGA National’s Champion course in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, site since 2007 of the Honda Classic. And there’s no denying that “The Bear Trap” is among the most well-known three-hole stretches played in professional golf. PGA Tour stats say that among non-Majors, holes 15-16-17 at PGA National are the third-toughest such collection on tour, behind Quail Hollow’s 16-17-18 and Pebble Beach’s 8-9-10.

But is this trio of holes – a water-laden 164-metre par 3, followed by a water-laden 397-metre par 4, followed by a (wait for it) water-laden 174-metre par 3 – really as formidable as we’re led to believe? Has the legend of the Bear Trap been overdone? Is the roar bigger than the bite?

The answer: probably.

Let’s start with the stats that bolster the argument that the Bear Trap is a brute. PGA Tour data shows that the Honda Classic field is a combined 3,629 over par across the 15th, 16th and 17th and 4,934 over par for the other 15 holes at PGA National since 2007. Of the 543 golfers who have played a competitive round at the Honda in that time, 76 percent (415) have hit at least one ball in the water on the three holes. And only 35 out of the 543 golfers (6.4 percent) have played the holes cumulatively under par during their Honda careers.

Contrasting those stats, however, are other numbers that show the holes in a different light. Specifically, when you look at the scoring averages on holes 15-17 separately and compare them on an individual basis to others at PGA National, the data shows that the Bear Trap holes often don’t rank among the most difficult on the course during any given tournament.

Below is a chart of the three holes, with where they ranked each year for the tournament, the hole average for the event, and also where they ranked among the toughest holes on the PGA Tour that year.

What you see is that the average rank for the 15th and 16th holes is 5.07 and 7.07, respectively, among all the holes on the course during the tournament’s 13 years at PGA National. The 17th, meanwhile, has proven more difficult, ranking the toughest hole for the tournament three times and averaging a 4.6 ranking overall.

Even more striking is how the holes have shaken out in the rankings since 2012. In that eight-year span, with the exception of 2018, none of the three holes have ranked more than the fourth-toughest for the tournament.

What you can also see on the chart is how the holes have ranked overall on the PGA Tour. In 2018, the 17th was the third hardest hole played all season – impressive given that it is a par 3 and one-shotters traditionally aren’t thought of as the most difficult to play – with the 15th ranking ninth and the 16th ranking 48th. That is the one time in tournament history, however, that the three have all ranked inside the top 50 hardest holes for a given season. And save for 2018, none of the three hole have ranked inside the top 75, with the 17th hole being the only one ranking inside the top 100 (in 2015 and 2017).

(Incidentally, if you’re looking for what statistically is the most difficult hole at PGA National during Honda week, head over to the sixth hole, a 438-metre par 4. The sixth has never ranked outside the top three of the toughest holes during tournament week, ranking first six times. It’s also ranked among the top 10 most difficult holes on tour six times since 2007 and ranked outside the top 50 just twice in 13 years.)

OK, but the quote on the plaque doesn’t say that holes 15-17 will play the most difficult. It says “it should be won or lost right here”. So just how often is the Honda Classic really won or lost at the Bear Trap?

The Honda Classic - Preview Day 2
Photo: Sam Greenwood

Going back through the score cards of the contenders at the Honda, you can indeed see years in which play on this trio of holes did prove pivotal in the outcome of the tournament. In 2018, Luke List lost in a playoff to Justin Thomas. List had played the Bear Trap that week in three-over par while Thomas played it in one-over. Could you make the argument that the tournament was won or lost there that year? Yes, although List’s trouble occurred in the first round when he was three-over for that stretch (thanks to a triple-bogey 6 on the 15th). During the final round, List played it in even-par, as did Thomas.

Interestingly, the contender who played the Bear Trap the worst in recent years was Adam Scott in 2016. Scott was five-over on the stretch for four rounds, having made a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 15th during the third round. But Scott still wound up winning the tournament by a shot despite the poor play (runner-up Sergio Garcia made bogeys on the 16th and 17th to finish one stroke behind).

Similarly, Padraig Harrington played the Bear Trap in two-over during the final round in 2015 (making double on the 17th), worse than any other player in the top five on the leaderboard that year, but managed to get into a playoff with Daniel Berger and win the title in a Monday finish.

In breaking down the stats to assess the holes’ impact on the final outcome, there would appear to be only five times during the 13 years in which you can find a player who shot over par on the Bear Trap for the week who if he had instead shot par figures would have topped the overall score of the eventual tournament winner:

Year, Player, Score on the Bear Trap for the week/Overall score
2018: Luke List, +3/-8, (Justin Thomas won at -8)
2016: Sergio Garcia, +2/-8 (Adam Scott won at -9)
2014: Ryan Palmer, +2/-8 (Russell Henley won playoff at -8)
2014: David Hearn, +3/-6 (Russell Henley won playoff at -8)
2008: Matt Jones +4/-3 (Ernie Els won at -6)

And if you look only at the final round and how contenders played the Bear Trap, there are just five instances when if a golfer who was over par on the holes in the final round had played them instead in par, he would have topped the winner’s final score.

Year, Player, Score on the Bear Trap for the final round/Overall score
2016: Sergio Garcia, +2/-8 (Adam Scott won at -9)
2015: Patrick Reed, +4/-3 (Padraig Harrington won at -6)
2014: Rory McIlroy, +3/-8 (Russell Henley won playoff at -8)
2014: Ryan Palmer, +1/-8 (Russell Henley won playoff at -8)
2007: Robert Allenby, +2/-4 (Mark Wilson won at -5)

In summary, the Honda Classic often should be won or lost at the Bear Trap, just as Nicklaus professed. That’s primarily because they are three of the final holes of the tournament, and inherently those holes will play a key role at the end most years. But statistically speaking, we don’t count on the Bear Trap being a deciding factor each and every year.