Course Preview: Waste Management Phoenix Open
When the PGA Tour makes its annual stop at TPC Scottsdale, the Waste Management Phoenix Open becomes just as much a social event as it is a sporting event. For the entire week, The Stadium Course becomes a raging outdoor party with single-day crowds that could fill U.S. Bank Stadium (host of this year’s Super Bowl) three times over. Hundreds of thousands of raucous fans, ranging from a little drunk to unable-to-stand-upright drunk, boo players who miss the green on the 16th stadium hole, sing fight songs of player’s alma maters and even serenade players if it’s anywhere close to their birthday. Waste Management is pretty much a giant frat party in the Arizona desert.
Some players won’t make the trip to Scottsdale because it can get too rowdy, but the field always runs deep with marquee names. Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, reigning FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas, and World No. 3 Jordan Spieth headline a field this year that includes five of the current top-seven players in the OWGR, and 18 of the top-25 in the FedEx Cup Playoff standings. The fan-favorite local faction includes three-time Waste Management Open champion Phil Mickelson, and former Arizona State star and current World No. 2 Jon Rahm.
The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale is a Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish designed par-71 track measuring 7,261 yards. Unlike typical desert courses, there’s little in the way of natural desert and vast waste areas on The Stadium Course. Wide expanses of green grass abound, and the primary challenges are bunkers and water hazards configured to make accuracy off the tee and from the fairway imperative. TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces are large, true rolling, mildly undulating, and always receive rave reviews from the players.
Scores ranging from three to seven are possible on the 553-yard, par-5, No. 15 with a lake protecting the entire left side. The green is reachable in two for players who can bust a big drive off the tee. However, the hole lures longer players to the more dangerous left side with a fairway landing zone that comes off the left-front portion of the green. Water remains a significant factor on second and third shots with an island green that’s flanked by deep bunkers on both sides. Each shot on No. 15 is dangerous, intimidating, and requires absolute precision to avoid catastrophe.
The 16th-hole at TPC Scottsdale
You can probably still picture a young Tiger Woods making an ace in 1997 on the short 163-yard, par-3, No. 16, transforming the hole into golf’s version of the Roman Coliseum. Fans celebrated by bombarding the tee box with beer cans, plastic cups, and whatever they could get their hands on. No. 16 can play anywhere from 115 to 180 yards from an elevated tee depending on hole location and tee placement. The green is protected by three bunkers, and shots that hit or miss the putting surface can incite deafening cheers or boos. “The loudest hole in golf” is not a place for the faint of heart.
Players need to avoid a waste area and water, left and short of the putting surface, if they decide to take a rip at the drivable 332-yard, par-4, No. 17. The safe option off the tee is to the right side of the fairway, leaving a manageable approach into a generously sized green. One of No. 17’s most memorable moments came in 2001. Andrew McGee drove the green into the group of Steve Pate, Gary Nicklaus, and Tom Byrum still playing, and McGee’s ball caromed off Byrum’s putter and into the hole for an ace.
The 18th-hole at TPC Scottsdale
Strategy off the tee on the 442-yard, par-4 No. 18 is crucial, and the wrong decision can quickly bring a big number into play. Players who challenge the lake with driver will need to decide how much of the water they’re willing to cut off on the left. Playing it safe to the right can still find trouble with three penal fairway bunkers that make for a challenging approach. A steep bunker complex protects the right side of the green with a small pot bunker and false front protecting the front left. No. 18 is an exciting finishing hole that can play a big role in determining the outcome.
Player to Watch
Hideki Matsuyama can become the first player to go back-to-back-to-back at the same event since Steve Stricker won three consecutive John Deere Classics from 2009 to 2011. Matsuyama has never finished lower than fourth place in his four previous trips to Waste Management and is ranked 13th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green this season. Course history and current form should bring Hideki another top-5 finish this week.
Rickie Fowler’s going to be a favorite this week with two top-5 finishes in his last two appearances at Waste Management. However, in his two prior trips to TPC Scottsdale Rickie finished T-46 and missed the cut. Fowler’s coming off a disappointing missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open last week and had a surprisingly rough time with driving accuracy and hitting greens. The Stadium Course rough won’t be nearly as penal as it was at Torrey Pines, but there are dangers at TPC Scottsdale that still punish errant shots. Fowler looked out of sorts in San Diego, and I don’t expect him to find his form this week in the desert. Fowler to finish outside the top-25.
John Rahm struggled on Saturday and Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open, shooting 75 and 77 respectively, after heading into the weekend just one stroke out of the lead. However, Rahm is still playing at a level that makes him a force to win every time he tees it up. Rahm is ranked third on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, and eighth in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green. Jon is a fiery competitor, and his emotions can sometimes get the best of him, but he loves playing in this area and has come close to winning here in the past. With Rahm’s talent, the sky’s the limit, and I expect the birdies to come easily for him this week. Rahm will seize the moment, pick up the victory, and become the new World No. 1 Player in the process.