(Introducing the insight, analysis and humor of Will Haskett out of Indianapolis)
Welcome to the biggest party in golf! While the world gathers to watch the biggest sporting event at the Super Bowl, organizers of the WM Phoenix Open will bring 600,000-plus together in Scottsdale to throw traditionalists into a tailspin of curmudgeonry disdain. This week is the anti-golf tournament, but don’t let the long lines for the bathroom, double-fisting beers and fraternity party gone wrong lead you astray. The golf tournament almost always delivers.
The Course – TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium course is a little tougher after Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish redesigned it in 2014. At 7,266 yards, this par 71 offers room to miss like any traditional desert layout, but the addition of “coffin” and “church pew” bunkers, not to mentioned some raised green complexes, has made a bit more difficult test. The last two winners have been at 269 (15-under) and 270 (14-under), respectively. Neither score would have gotten it done on the previous layout in 11 of the previous 14.
Last Year – Before he became the hottest golfer on the planet at the end of 2016, Hideki Matsuyama (above) notched his second PGA Tour win when he bested Rickie Fowler in a four-hole playoff. It shouldn’t have gone to the playoff if Fowler could have kept his ball dry on the 17th hole. His bogey there in regulation opened the door, despite birdieing the last hole.
This Year – The youth movement is in full effect after Jon Rahm’s exclamation point to win the Farmers Insurance Open. His victory makes it eight wins by players in their 20’s in 11 PGA Tour events this season. That number is inflated by the three wins of Justin Thomas, who returns after a two-week break for a heat check in the desert. Tracking him may be the storyline to watch. Tracking all of the young guns is a close second.
The Field – Besides Thomas and Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed return to action as well, providing four players ranked in the top 10 in the world. It’s a loaded field in terms of production this season. Of PGA Tour winners this season, all but Hudson Swafford are teeing it up in Scottsdale, and 26 of the top 30 in FedEx Cup points.
#59Watch – The course record is 60, done twice, most recently by Phil Mickelson in 2013 when he lipped out for 59. The low number last year was 64, leading some to believe a sub-60 round isn’t in the new version of the golf course. Given how 2017 has started, that could be proven wrong. The #Watch was put to rest last week. It may be back again this week.
Weather – Building off the optimism above, the extended forecast for this week is perfect, with mild temperatures, low winds, no rain and the occasional cloud.
Holes to Watch – The 16th will get all of the attention. The “Coliseum” attracts over 20,000 patrons every day and steals the show. But the golf tournament is decided on what this author has dubbed “The Hangover,” holes 17 and 18. The par 4 17th is drivable at just 332 yards, but club choice can be tricky. It played nearly a half shot under par last year, but yielded 59 bogeys or worse. Winners make birdie there. After the short par 4, the 438-yard par 4 18th hole isn’t the layup it used to be when Weiskopf added bunkers beyond the water hazard down the left. It was the second hardest hole in 2016, giving up only 57 birdies for the entire week and just 11 in the final round.
Must See – Every stimulant will drive you to the Coliseum, but the tagline for the tournament is: Respect the game. Respect the players. Respect the fans. Yes, the 16th is a party. Yes, most there aren’t really there for the golf. Guess what? There are 18 holes on a golf course. The hidden gem to the WM Phoenix Open is how easy it is to see good golf, great players and a gorgeous course, unimpeded, around the property. If you go, check out the front nine, and save the party for the Millennials.
Championship Pedigree – Since the redesign, ballstriking has been even more of a recipe for success at TPC Scottsdale. The top five last year all ranked inside the top seven in strokes gained tee to green. Hideki Matsuyama led the field in greens in regulation, with his two closest pursuers also in the top six. With pure greens and little weather resistance, the player who gives himself the most birdie opportunities is a good pick to win it.
Top Five –
Justin Thomas – Birdies and ballstriking. The only thing holding Thomas back may be whatever rust and complacency developed during a brief absence to soak in his Hawaiian winnings. He is fourth on Tour in strokes gained tee to green, and has openly said he plans to win more this year. Until he loses, he leads the list.
Jon Rahm – He threatened to win this golf tournament as an amateur two years ago while still at Arizona State. Phil Mickelson pulled that feat off while a Sun Devil and praised Rahm after his win last week as a player with no holes in his game. He is seventh in strokes gained tee to green, and fits the same bill as Thomas when it comes to riding a hot hand.
Hideki Matsuyama – His run of dominance came to an end with two finishes outside of the top 20 in his last two starts, but even fatigue can’t keep him from a good finish this week. The defending champ is built for this course. His career finishes at TPC Scottsdale: T4, T2, P1
Jordan Spieth – Only his second start in this event (T7 in 2015) but it sets up for his game brilliantly. While his good buddy was setting scoring records and winning tournaments, Spieth was quietly racking up top three finishes. Don’t think he doesn’t want people to remember him in this young gun conversation. He’s the alpha dog of that American pack.
Brendan Steele – The man who won the opening tournament of the season is just banking money and FedEx Cup points ever since. He’s 11th in greens in regulation this season, is showing growing confidence with the putter since the anchoring ban and has a stellar record in Scottsdale. He’s never missed the cut and had a top six run of three straight years from 2012-2014.
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – If not Steele (might try to cash in before the hot hand cools a little), a run on Harris English this week wouldn’t be a bad play. He’s been wildly inconsistent this season, but was in contention in San Diego and finished solo third at this event a year ago. It was the second top 10 of his career at this event, where he has never missed the cut.