Pro Golf Weekly

4 Storylines: Waste Management Phoenix Open

Professional golf does not have a reputation for large, rowdy crowds, but the Waste Management Phoenix Open is a clear anomaly. Spectators arrive in droves to TPC Scottsdale, with last year’s attendance rounding out to over 600,000(!) people.

Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale
Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson reacts on the 16th hole during day three of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 3, 2018 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The party is especially wild at the famous 16th hole – known as the Stadium Hole, which is easily the loudest in golf. For the most part, players seem to love the unique atmosphere. It may not be the Super Bowl, but the Phoenix Open is second to none when it comes to fanfare.

Field headliners this weekend include Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, and Phil Mickelson – the latter playing the event for the 29th consecutive year. There are many intriguing storylines this year, but here are the four we like best:

1. Woodland Defends

Last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open resulted in a playoff for the third consecutive year, with Gary Woodland taking his third career PGA Tour title on the first extra hole of his battle with Chez Reavie.

Gary Woodland Wins Waste Management Phoenix Open
Gary Woodland poses with the trophy after winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 4, 2018 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

With a smooth, very powerful swing, Woodland – a University of Kansas product, often makes the game look easy, but his Sunday effort at TPC Scottsdale was the epitome of difficult.

The 33-year-old began the final day in eighth-place, staring up at loaded leaderboard comprised of big names such as Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm, Daniel Berger, Xander Schauffele, and Bryson DeChambeau. With five front-nine birdies, and a closing surge, which included three-consecutive birdies on Nos. 15, 16, and 17, Woodland went from an afterthought to the man to beat with one hole to go. A gritty, determined Chez Reavie, though, finished birdie-birdie to force sudden-death, where Woodland would close it out on the first extra hole to secure his first title since the 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open.

Woodland came into that event in excellent form, having finished T12 at the previous week’s Farmers Insurance Open and posting a T7 in his start prior.

Strangely enough, something about landing in the winner’s circle in Phoenix extinguished his hot play. Woodland missed the cut the following week at Pebble Beach – the first start of a nine-event stretch where he failed to make the weekend on six occasions. His other three results were a T49, a T50, and a T29, with the latter coming at the 64-man, no cut Dell Technologies Match Play.

Gary Woodland Wins Waste Management Phoenix Open
Gary Woodland celebrates after beating Chez Reavie in a playoff at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 4, 2018 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Woodland played better as the season came closer to its conclusion, although he added just one additional top-10 to his season resume. That top-10 finish was an impressive one, however: his 64-66 start at the PGA Championship gave him the 36-hole lead and set a tournament record. He would go on to finish T6, his first career top-10 in a major (28 starts). Woodland then chased that strong result with a respectable run in the FedExCup playoffs, finishing T24, T12, and T11 in the final three events, respectively.

Since the 2019 season started in October, Woodland has been undeniably dialed-in. In seven starts he has five top-10s, two more than he had in the entire 2018 season (27 starts), and he has twice finished a tournament runner-up – first at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea, and then more recently at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

He finished a surprisingly poor 80th a few weeks ago at the Sony Open, but was back in stellar form last week at Torrey Pines, finishing T9 after his Sunday 66 was the low round of the final day.

In that final round, Woodland gained nearly three strokes on the field with his approaches, and if he shows that kind of shot-making prowess at TPC Scottsdale, he could join Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller, and Hideki Matsuyama as the only players to win the event in back-to-back years.

2. Phil’s Favorite

An ageless wonder, Mickelson first played the Phoenix Open as a 17-year-old amateur in 1989. He sat out the following year, but teed up again at the 1991 event, finishing in a tie for 32nd place. He has played in every edition since. In those 28 consecutive starts, Phil has won three times (1996, 2005, 2013) and has finished in the top-10 on 11 occasions.

Phil Mickelson 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale
Phil Mickelson tees off on the 16th hole during the 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Those victories tie him with Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, and Mark Calcavecchia for the tournament record. Had he not lost to J.B. Holmes in a 2008 playoff, Phil would be holding that record solo.

It makes sense that Mickelson likes this event so much. He was an amateur superstar at nearby Arizona State University, winning 16 tournaments, including a record-tying 3 NCAA Championship individual titles. Year in and year out, Mickelson continues to be the biggest object of affection of the PGA Tour’s biggest crowd.

At last year’s event, Mickelson drew more loud cheers as he finishing in a tie for 5th. After carding a birdie and 13 pars over his first 14 holes, he made a late surge into contention with birdies on 15, 16, and 17. He double-bogeyed the final hole, but in his defense, he stepped up to the 18th tee box knowing he needed at least one more stroke under par and failed with a risky second shot from a difficult lie. He was then able to parlay that top-5 into finishes of T2 and T6 in his next two starts, followed by a victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship, his first win in five years.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson hits a shot on the 18th hole during the final round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 4, 2018 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Not shockingly, given his age, Phil hit something of a wall late in the year. After getting some rest, however, his game appears to be back on track. He made his 2019 calendar year debut two weeks ago at the Desert Classic in La Quinta, shooting a first-round 60, finishing second after holding the 54-hole lead. He was outdueled on Sunday by a completely-unknown Adam Long, who had never even finished in the top 50 of a PGA Tour event, but overall, it was an encouraging start and should give him confidence as he gets his season rolling.

3. Hideki on High

Japanese phenom Hideki Matsuyama has shown an enormous affinity for desert golf over the past five years at TPC Scottsdale. He finished T4 in his Phoenix Open debut in 2014, and then bettered that result by finishing runner-up to Brooks Koepka the following year.

Matsuyama then went on to beat Rickie Fowler in a playoff to take the 2016 edition, and then made it back-to-back titles when he defeated Webb Simpson in a playoff the following year. He had high hopes of the trifecta in last year’s event, but was forced to withdraw due to injury after an opening-round 2-under 69.

Hideki Matsuyama
Hideki Matsuyama reacts on the 18th green during the final round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 5, 2017 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2018 season, as a whole, was a surprising dud for Hideki. After having won three tournaments in 2017, in addition to three runner-ups, he had just four top-10s last season, some of which was imputed to nagging injuries. He did seem to regain some form late in the year, however, as he followed up a 64-65 weekend at the Wyndham Championship with a T15-T4-15-T4 stretch in the FedExCup playoffs.

That momentum evaporated at the beginning of the 2019 season. He was reeling after consecutive poor starts on the Japan Tour, and finished dead-last at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 18-man annual event in the Bahamas.

A T51 three weeks ago at the Sony Open in Hawaii did not help matters much either. After some recovery time, however, it appears that good Hideki might again be present. At last week’s Farmers Insurance Open, a 66-66 start led to a T3 finish. His iron game was excellent, highlighted by hitting 17 of 18 greens in a 5-under Sunday round.

This recent development, combined with his formidable history at TPC Scottsdale, should have the Tour on notice this week.

4. Kuchar’s Hot Streak

Phil Mickelson and Hideki Matsuyama might be coming into the Waste Management Phoenix Open in good form, but nobody in this week’s field is hotter than Matt Kuchar.

Matt Kuchar WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale
Matt Kuchar reacts on the 18th green during the final round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 5, 2017 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After going nearly five years without a victory, the 40-year-old has won two of his last three starts, including his most recent outing less than three weeks ago at the Sony Open, where he followed two rounds of 63 with two rounds of 66.

In addition to exemplary recent form, Kuchar has a good recent history in this event. Two years ago he finished T9, and added another top 10 last year when a 64-67 weekend led to a T5, his best result all of last season.

Kuchar has always been fairly accurate, but he has taken that to another level so far this season, as he currently ranks 3rd on Tour in driving accuracy and 4th on Tour in greens in regulation. As a result, he sits in the No. 2 spot in the current FedExCup standings and has risen to 23rd in the world rankings. He is understandably among the favorite in Phoenix this week.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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