Waste Management Phoenix Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE Waste Management Phoenix Open is going to be a very different animal this year. This, you will recall, is the tournament that traditionally attracts the largest, noisiest crowds in the professional game. Hundreds of thousands of them poured in 12 months ago to see Webb Simpson defeat Tony Finau to secure his sixth PGA Tour victory but this time the event will be played out in comparative silence and will surely suffer as a result.
Rory McIlroy continues his busy start to the year. This would not normally be a venue that would feature in his schedule but the Northern Irishman is determined to get a couple of wins under his belt - and to find a way to keep it going for four rounds. It is a measure of his ability that he contended at the Abu Dhabi Championship despite not having anything like his best game on show. But there were some highly encouraging signs surrounding his short game. Yes he missed a couple of tiddlers, but generally he putted pretty well for all four rounds.
Simpson’s success in 2020 was his first since the the Players Championship in 2018 and came after four runner-up finishes in 2019. He won after making his second birdie on the 18th hole in less than a half hour. Afterwards he revealed he put it down to a new mantra: control what you can control, keep moving forward, and have faith that good things will come.
“It’s just a reminder for me to take care of the little things,” Simpson said. “And the big things seem to take care of themselves.”
(Rory Ready for Phoenix)
Finau was bidding to win for the first time since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach. And he is still looking for that elusive second victory. This week he has chosen to give Phoenix a miss and will instead be playing in Saudi Arabia. “Webb got the upper hand this time,” Finau said, “but I love that guy, and that’s one hell of a finish. If you’re going to birdie 18 a couple of times, you’re probably going to win.”
Justin Thomas (65), Bubba Watson (66) and Nate Lashley (68) tied for third, three back.
Simpson looked out of it when he hooked his drive into the water at the par-five 15th, and while Finau failed to convert on an eight-foot birdie try, the lead was still two with three to play. Finau, the 54-hole leader who , seemed to be in control.
“To me it came down to the putt on 15,” said Boyd Summerhays, Finau’s coach, “because anything can happen coming in.” Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, reminded Simpson of exactly that after the mistake on the 15th. “Step by step,” Tesori said as they stood on the 16th tee. “Tony might birdie the last three and it won’t matter, but if we do our job, we might have a chance.”
Simpson nearly hit the flagstick at the par-three 16th hole, but missed his 18-foot birdie try. He drove the green at the short, par-four 17th and converted a tough two-putt to cut the lead to one. And at the par-four 18th, he holed an uphill, right-to-left putt from 18 feet to force a playoff.
He birdied the 18th again, this time from just outside 10 feet, in the playoff. “I didn’t think it was over,” Simpson said of his thoughts walking off the 15th green, “but I thought I am really going to have to do something special to get back in it.”
After finishing second at the RSM Classic, Wyndham Championship, WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and RBC Canadian Open, Simpson said he told himself that he was learning something every time, and that he hadn’t so much lost those tournaments as others won them.
“I wasn't in contention at Memphis when I finished second,” he said. “I had a great Sunday. Rory shoots 61 at RBC, J.T. Poston shoots 62 at Wyndham. Tyler Duncan birdies the 17th and 18th at the RSM, which is incredible on those two holes. It could have been easy for me to get down, but as you look at those tournaments, guys played great and that’s the way the game goes sometimes. If you’re not ready for things to turn around they probably won’t.”
His solid play this week was no surprise; he had lost a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama in 2017, and had three other top-10 finishes at TPC Scottsdale. The course appeals especially to big hitters, which Simpson will never be but he makes up for it with great iron play.
And, like so many others on the PGA Tour, he has spent time in the gym and has added distance from the tee. Simpson, who had done everything but win with six top-20 finishes here, was able to comfortably hit 3-wood off the 18th tee and know he’d have only a sand wedge remaining. “It doesn’t look like it, because he’ll never be able to do what they can do,” Tesori said, “but in his own way he has worked as hard as he could.”
The tournament was won in 2015 by Brooks Koepka, in 2016 and 2017 by Hideki Matsuyama, in 2018 by Gary Woodland, in 2019 by Rickie Fowler and last year by Simpson. Matsuyama has a wonderful record here - he also finished second in 2015 - and will fancy his chances of picking up a third victory in Arizona.
Hideki Matsuyama. Has a fabulous record here
Rory McIlroy. Needs to keep it going for 72 holes
Xander Schauffele. A great player, with not a single weakness
Hideki Matsuyama. Time for him to win again
Rory McIlroy. Must be feeling so frustrated by all those near-misses
Xander Schauffele. A major champion in waiting
Webb Simpson. Will return with great memories
Rickie Fowler. Whisper it, but Fowler has been showing signs of form
Justin Thomas. Another week, another good finish
Sungjae Im. Does this guy ever take a week off? Erm, no
Brooks Koepka. Still searching for something
Bubba Watson. Adores this place, but without fans?
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