By Simon Evans
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida (Reuters) - The PGA Tour's 'Florida Swing,' golf's unofficial start of the road to the Masters, begins on Thursday with world number one Rory McIlroy heading a strong field in the Honda Classic at PGA National.
In what promises to be a fascinating start to the build-up to the April 9-12 Masters, McIlroy, who first reached the top of the world rankings with a victory in this event in 2012, will head a field consisting of 16 of the world's top 25 players.
World number six Sergio Garcia, who missed out on a playoff by one shot at Riviera last week, will also be looking to fine-tune his game along with Germany's Martin Kaymer and England's Justin Rose, the last two U.S. Open winners, respectively.
American Russell Henley, who triumphed at last year's Honda Classic, is one of 12 former champions in the field. And while there is no Tiger Woods, who is taking a break from the game after form and injury issues, Phil Mickelson's presence should help excite the galleries.
Mickelson, a five-time major winner, said he is "just trying to put it all together" disappointing campaign last season.
"We'll see. I don't know when it's all going to come together," said Mickelson.
Another American, Rickie Fowler, is hoping to put his slow start to the year behind him and get into form in time for the year's first major.
"I am getting some things turned the right direction, (I need to) get some momentum going and getting back to being in contention and make it a fun year," said Fowler.
"The biggest thing for me ... is just getting better at 150 yards and in."
A key part of the challenging, and often windy, Champion Course is the intimidating trio of holes at 15, 16 and 17 known as 'The Bear Trap.'
"It is a blast playing the 'Bear Trap' and those holes are really visually intimidating," said Henley. "I'm excited to play them again."
But Henley believes the course is much tougher than just mastering the difficult stretch of holes that attract plenty of attention from the fans.
"Nobody every talks about all the holes on the front, there's some really difficult holes. I think the rest of the course is a little bit under-rated," said Henley.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)