The eyes of the world will be in Los Angeles on Sunday, as the Super Bowl – the most popular event in American sports – takes place for the 56th time.
It will not be the only sporting event that will draw enormous numbers, as the PGA Tour has their annual excursion in Scottsdale, Arizona for the WM Phoenix Open, a tournament dating back to 1932 and regularly boasts attendance numbers that exceed half a million patrons. It might be the highest-energy event in golf; particularly on the iconic 16th par-3 stadium hole.
World No. 1, and former Arizona State University star, Jon Rahm headlines this year’s field, in addition to five others who rank in the top 10. Rahm is just one of many storylines worth special attention, however. Here are several others:
1. World’s Top Dog at Scottsdale
Headlining this week’s field in Phoenix is World No. 1 Jon Rahm. And being ranked first in the world is far from the reason he is a heavy favorite this week.
The 27-year-old Spaniard was a superstar amateur at nearby Arizona State University, and he is someone who has thrived off crowd energy in the past.
Rahm was incredible in the 2021 Tour season, and among a ridiculous 15 top 10s in 22 starts was a dominant victory at the U.S. Open, two runner-ups, and two third places finishes. He also would have very likely won The Memorial Tournament had he not tested positive for COVID while holding a six-stroke lead through three rounds. Patrick Cantlay being named PGA Tour Player of the Year over Rahm was very controversial.
Statistically, he was phenomenal as well. Rahm led the Tour last season in scoring average, birdie average, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and strokes gained: total. He also topped the money list and was second in the final FedExCup standings.
While he has yet to win the WM Phoenix Open, he has finished T16 or better in all six of his starts, with a high-finish of T5 in 2017. Of his 24 rounds played here, he has posted an over-par round just once.
2. Brooks Koepka Defends in Phoenix
Brooks Koepka winning is never really a surprise. The 31-year-old has eight career victories and has shown proficiency in staring down the deepest and most talented of leaderboards. However, at this point a year ago, Koepka was in what he considered “a dark place” after missing three consecutive cuts, largely imputed to a knee injury he was struggling to completely coalesce from. In addition, he had not won anywhere since taking the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in July of 2019.
TPC Scottsdale ended up completely rejuvenating him. Consecutive 5-under 66s in the second and third rounds brought him within five strokes of the lead held by two of the Tour’s biggest heavyweights in Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. Needing to go low again, Koepka absolutely exploded down the stretch with some of the best golf in his career, carding birdies on 13, 14, and 15 before chipping in for eagle on 17. A 6-under 65 allowed him to finish one stroke ahead of Schauffele and K.H. .Lee.
The victory in Phoenix was additionally notable because it was his second career win in the event, as he took the 2015 edition – his first win on tour – by one stroke over Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson, and Ryan Palmer. A win this year would tie Koepka for the most in tournament history, which he would share with Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, Mark Calcavecchia, and Phil Mickelson.
In the 12 months since, Koepka has yet to win again, but has consistently contended, especially in bigger events, posting top-6 finishes at the PGA Championship (T2), U.S. Open (T4), and The Open Championship (T6). Additionally, he was runner-up at the WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession.
However, similarly to last year, he arrives at TPC Scottsdale slumping. In six starts in the new 2022 season, he has missed three cuts, all in his last four starts, and the one he did not miss was a 32-man no-cut event in early January. His other two results were a T38 and a T67. Statistically, he has been awful, placing in the negative in all six strokes gained: categories.
So, this is familiar territory for Koepka, and while he is struggling, he has shown a remarkable ability to turn things around fast, particularly in atmospheres where he has succeeded before (majors, WGCs, etc).
3. Entering Phoenix Off a Win
Koepka might be the tournament’s defending champion, but he is far from the only player in the field to have confidence in a recent outing. This year’s WM Phoenix Open features four players who landed in the winner’s circle their last time out.
Luke List: Playing in his 206th career PGA Tour event, the 37-year-old finally broke through when he won the Farmers Insurance Open two weeks ago at historic Torrey Pines. Playing eight pairings from the final Sunday group, List carded birdies on two of his last three holes, and posted a 6-under 66 that was good enough to force a playoff with reigning Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris, which he would win on the first extra hole. At 15-under for the week, List impressively finished ahead current World No. 1 Jon Rahm and former World No. 1 Jason Day. Phoenix has not been kind to List in the past though: in seven career TPC Scottsdale starts, his best finish was a T25 in 2020.
Tom Hoge: The 32-year-old TCU product also notched career win No. 1 on an iconic course, using a late stretch to surge past Jordan Speith at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am just this past weekend. Also finishing runner-up at last month’s The American Express, Hoge finds himself second to Hideki Matsuyama in the current FedExCup standings. Also similar to List, Hoge’s best finish at TPC Scottsdale was a T25 in 2020.
Harold Varner III: The 31-year-old Akron native has contended frequently on Tour, but has not quite been able to close the door on Sunday. That changed when he sunk an 88-foot walk-off eagle at the Asian Tour’s Saudi International in Saudi Arabia, an event with a surprisingly strong field and a $1,000,000 first prize. Now 45th in the world rankings, Varner III’s best result in Phoenix was a T10 in 2019, where he opened with a 7-under 64.
Viktor Hovland: At the Dubai Desert Classic – a Rolex Series event on the DP World Tour, the 24-year-old Norweigan star claimed his sixth worldwide title, and third in his last five starts. Hovland is now ranked No. 3 in the world and will enter Phoenix as one of the game’s truly elite stars.
4. Rickie Fowler’s Phoenix Open-tunity
Rickie Fowler might not be a local, but he is still one of the most popular players in golf, and he will certainly be the subject of much attention to the large crowds this week.
The 33-year-old finds himself mired in a slump, and in recent years has gone from being in the top 10 in the world rankings to his current position of 113th.
Good news for Fowler, though: TPC Scottsdale has been very good to him. His most recent win came in the 2019 edition by two strokes over Brandan Grace, and among three other top-5s include a runner-up in 2010 to Hunter Mahan, and a playoff runner-up to Hideki Matsuyama in 2016. He did miss the cut a year ago, but did well to bounce back from an opening-round 74 with a second-round 68.
Coming off a season where he posted just one top-10 in 24 starts, Fowler showed signs of life in the new season when he held the 54-hole lead at October’s CJ CUP @ Summit before ultimately finishing T3.
He comes into the week off consecutive missed cuts, but his history and fanfare make this an excellent place to start thinking of a career resurgence.
5. More Horses For the Scottsdale Course
Koepka, Rahm, and Fowler have excelled at TPC Scottsdale, but they are not the only elite players who feel exceptionally comfortable in Phoenix.
A few more to watch:
Hideki Matsuyama: the 29-year-old Japanese phenom finished second to Koepka in 2015, and then came back to win the WM Phoenix Open title in 2016 and 2017. He was also T4 in 2014… In the past year, Matsuyama’s profile has skyrocketed; he won The Masters last April for his first career major championship victory and he has won twice already in the current season, winning the ZOZO Championship in October and the Sony Open in Hawaii last month.
Webb Simpson: the 36-year-old took the 2020 title in a playoff over Tony Finau, finished a playoff second to Hideki Matsuyama in 2016 and has three other top 10s in Phoenix. Simpson has yet to take off in the new season, but has compiled two wins and 14 top 10s over the previous two years.
Jordan Spieth: The 12-time PGA Tour winner may have some scar tissue after failing to close out a late lead at last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but his “slump” keeps getting further and further away in his rear-view mirror. A third-round 61 in Phoenix last year vaulted him into the 54-hole co-lead, before finishing T4. It was one of three top-10s in five career starts in this event… Spieth is coming off a resurgent season where he had a win, two runner-ups, two-third places finishes, and four other top-10s.
Justin Thomas: Seems to be emerging from the comparative funk he was in most of last season, with results inside the top 20 in each of his four 2022 season starts. The world No. 7 finished third here in both 2019 and 2020, in addition to a T13 and two T17s. In each of the past three editions, Thomas has at least one round of 65 or better.