Waste Management Phoenix Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
IT’S the biggest, noisiest tournament on the planet and the players either love it or hate. Yes, the Phoenix Waste Management Open is back, with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama bidding to win the title for the third successive year.
What makes this tournament special is both the size of the gallery and the atmosphere they create, particularly on Saturday and Sunday at the par-three 16th hole. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. More than 500,000 fans routinely come through the gates, with the record daily attendance being the 201,003 who took their place around TPC Scottsdale on Saturday, February 6, 2016. Just stop and think about those numbers for a moment, and then try to imagine what it must be like to play in front of them, especially late in the day when they have spent hours roasting in the desert sun, feeding their thirst with beer.
It takes a special type of player to win here. It was won in 2011 by Mark Wilson, in 2012 by Kyle Stanley, in 2013 by Phil Mickelson, in 2014 by Kevin Stadler, in 2015 by Brooks Koepka and in 2016 and 2017 by Matsuyama. There have been many memorable moments, none more so than way back in 1997 when Tiger Woods brought the house down with a hole-in-one at the 16th, which measures just 162 yards. Francesco Molinari described his hole in one at the same hole as one of the highlights of his career – and this from an emotional Italian who has won the Italian Open in front of an adoring home crowd.
The stands around the 16th hold more than 20,000 people. They will hoot and holler and raise the roof when players hit a good shot, but woe betide anybody who misses the green. Former Open champion Justin Leonard, who is one of the most laidback players the PGA Tour has ever produced, once took exception to the abuse he received upon missing target and gave the gallery the finger.
So you have got the picture. This is NOT a routine, run-of-the-mill event. Many of the world’s top players routinely give it a miss but those who do take part normally embrace the atmosphere and use it to raise their game.
It is, perhaps, a surprise that Matsuyama has achieved so much success at TPC Scottsdale. He is not your typical Japanese golfer. Players from the Land of the Rising Sun tend not to show emotion, keeping their feelings very much to themselves. Matsuyama, who will be targeting his first major this year, is not like that. When he is playing well he is full of smiles and fist-pumps, but when he is struggling he would be the first to admit that he is not terribly good company.
He had a stellar season in 2017. Ranked fifth in the world, it is hard to believe that he is still only 25 years old as he seems to have been around forever. He played in 22 PGA Tour events last year, and missed just two cuts. There were three victories as well as three runners-up finishes, seven top-10 finishes and 12 top-25 finishes and $8,3m in prize money. He demonstrated extraordinary consistency, and has kicked off the new campaign in the same rich vein of form, with three top-five finishes in his first four starts.
An interesting addition to the field is 2010 champion Hunter Mahan, who has endured a thoroughly miserable run in recent times. A six-time winner on the PGA Tour, Mahan also finished fourth in 2014 but has had to depend on a sponsor’s invitation to make it this year. Tournament chairman Carlos Sugich said: “Hunter is a great champion of our tournament and a great friend of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and that is one of the things we look at when we award exemptions,” Sugich said. “We are excited that Hunter will be able to come back and tee it up at TPC Scottsdale.”
A former Ryder Cup player, he is now ranked 638th in the world – in 2012 he was fourth. As recently as 2014, he won a tournament and earned more than $3m in prize money for the fifth successive year. The following season there were only four finishes in the top 10, but then the wheels really came off. In 2016 and 2017, Mahan played in 48 tournaments and missed the cut on 29 occasions and earned just $500,000, with only three top-25 finishes. In 2016 he was 183rd in the FedEx Cup standings, and last year he was 182nd. He spent some time scrambling around on the Web.com Tour, desperately searching for form and confidence. It is a search that still continues.
“The hard part is showing up every day with a good attitude because the bad stuff is always with you,” he said. “When you are playing well, the bad stuff goes away. It’s like your waterproof. And when you are playing badly, it feels like you are a sponge, absorbing all the bad stuff. Mentally, you like to deal with one thing at a time. I think it has all overwhelmed me and I lost track of my swing. It feels like an avalanche.”
Crucially, there have been some recent signs of improvement and maybe, just maybe, a return to Phoenix will do the trick. There are a lot of people in and around the PGA Tour who will be rooting for him, including your correspondent. Golf can be a very cruel game.
Hideki Matsuyama. Why not a hat-trick of wins?
Each Way: Rickie Fowler. Made for this sort of atmosphere
Each Way: Jordan Spieth. Ready to put right poor record here
Hideki Matsuyama. Looking for a big, big season
Rickie Fowler. Will be inspired by the crowd
Jordan Spieth. Simply the best
Zach Johnson. In superb form
Jon Rahm. Just gets better and better
Patrick Reed. He will get it right soon
Daniel Berger. Hugely underrated
JB Holmes. Loves this place
Phil Mickelson. Crowd favourite
Justin Thomas. Slow start to 2018, but it won’t last
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