It was a wild week in La Jolla, Calif., as a rules controversy overshadowed great play by Patrick Reed during his run to a five-shot victory at the Farmers Insurance Open. Reed will head west this week to Saudi Arabia to join a field with some big names at the top, while the TOUR goes east to Phoenix for the Waste Management Open with some big names of its own.
Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy join defending champion Webb Simpson at TPC Scottsdale to headline this year’s event. Having half of the top 10 in the world, including a tournament debut for McIlroy, is a big pull for Phoenix and sets up to be a great appetizer leading up to the Super Bowl on Sunday evening.
After a couple of weeks playing multiple courses, we return to just one track this week, allowing us to focus on just 18 holes. Another factor that will be out this week, is the usual raucous crowd that lines TPC Scottsdale most years, especially on the stadium Par-3 16th, where it’s typically anything but a traditional golf atmosphere. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, there will only be 5,000 fans on site each day, which is still more than we’ve seen at any other tournaments this year. The good news is we won’t have to spend the week talking about who can handle the pressure and intensity of the crowd around 16, but we lose one of the greatest scenes on TOUR each year.
The course at TPC Scottsdale will set up as a 7,261-yard Par 71 with three reachable Par 5s, and four Par 3s including the aforementioned 16th. After a brief stint on the poa annua at Torrey Pines, we are back to bermudagrass greens, but they do have some poa overseed to them and they’re set to roll at a 12 on the stimpmeter. The rest of the course tee to green is also bermudagrass, overseeded with ryegrass, including the 2.5-inch rough.
While there are three attackable Par 5s and a drivable Par 4, the winners have finished between 14 and 18-under in each of the past five years. The course has three water hazards that come into play on six holes, making for some feast-or-famine scenarios, especially at the short Par 4 17th. Additionally, 67 sand bunkers provide more protection for the course to set it up to be a true test for the players this week.
As is the case at most events, the players will look to make their hay this week on the Par 5s. None at TPC Scottsdale play longer than 558 yards, making them all accessible to players in two with good drives. Unsurprisingly, they play as three of the four easiest holes on the course, yielding birdie or better more than 40% of the time. Players will need to take full advantage of these scoring opportunities, because the course can bite back at other points in the round.
Just one of the four Par 3s at TPC Scottsdale exceeds 200 yards, but just because they are short by TOUR standards doesn’t make them easy. The 7th is the longest, listed at 215 yards on the scorecard this year, and it has historically played as one of the two toughest holes on the course. Additionally, the Par-3 12th hole ranks fourth in difficulty around this course, as at 192 yards the approach to this peninsula green can often lead to bogeys. Players will be happy to survive these two Par 3s in even-par this week, and will be looking to attack more at the others including the signature 16th.
Known as the “Stadium Hole”, the Par-3 16th plays just 130 yards, with bunkers surrounding the greens, but in normal circumstances it’s just not that intimidating of a shot. In most years, this hole is surrounded by tens of thousands of fans yelling, chanting, and booing, before, after, and during each player’s shot. It’s truly a golf hole unlike any other, and there are often times where you can see it get to certain pros. Unfortunately, we won’t see that same atmosphere this year, but I assure you there will be a large portion of the 5,000 on site looking to make a presence at the hole.
There are 11 Par 4s at TPC Scottsdale and each of them will play a heavy hand in deciding this year’s winner. All but one play over 400 yards, and they each test the players in different ways. The 11th hole plays as the most difficult each year, as it provides an intimidating tee shot with water protecting the entire left side of the fairway. Players will try to keep their drive down the right side of the fairway, but inevitably someone going off the back on Thursday will start their second hole of the tournament with a big number.
Down the stretch, three Par 4s will have a big impact to decide the champion. The 14th is the longest Par 4 on the course and often plays difficult, yielding bogey or worse more than 18% of the time. Then as players get through the stadium hole at 16, they will have a decision to make on the tee at the drivable 17th from just 332 yards. There is really no bailout on this hole as anything left or long is wet, and short and right will bring bunkers and a difficult up-and-down. We will see some twos but also some sixes or worse this week. It’s a fantastic hole, especially right at the end of the tournament.
Lastly, players will finish at the 18th with the iconic church pew bunkering down the left. The final tee shot requires precision to this slight dogleg left as a long tee shot is needed to clear the trouble without going through the fairway. We have seen many contenders get lost on their way in through 17 and 18 throughout the years, creating great drama to close out the week.
Several players have had a strong history at TPC Scottsdale and while one (Tony Finau) chose the Saudi event this year, there will be no shortage of players coming in with good memories of the Waste Management.
The battle for top Course Horse comes down to Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler. Both have an incredible track record at this event, but I’ll give the slight edge to Matsuyama who has won it twice in the last five years. The Japanese superstar went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, and has a couple of top 16 finishes over his last two trips to the event. His only blemish was a withdrawal with an injury back in 2018.
As I mentioned, Fowler has also done well in Phoenix, including his most recent TOUR victory in 2019. He has made the cut in each of his last five trips to TPC Scottsdale, and a 37th last year was an outlier to his three top-4 finishes and an 11th in those appearances. Fowler is currently on the outside looking in for some big events coming up, including the WGC that used to be in Mexico and The Masters. This is a spot he knows he can and likely needs to play well to position himself to qualify.
Defending champion Webb Simpson makes his return this week after a couple of weeks off. Last year, he chased down and beat Finau in an epic playoff finish as Simpson birdied his 72nd hole and then did it again in the playoff. It was finally a trip to the top at the Waste Management for Simpson after showings in the top-20 and a runner-up in previous years.
Matt Kuchar is a name that seems to pop at the same events each year. He certainly hasn’t done much popping in recent events with no Top-30 finishes in his last eight tournaments, but a return to Phoenix could be just what he needs. He’s finished no worse than 16th in his last four appearances at TPC Scottsdale, including three top nines.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images
Pictured: Hideki Matsuyama