5 Players to Watch at The WM Phoenix Open
After successive tournaments on the Californian coast, it’s time for the PGA Tour to travel elsewhere, Arizona to be exact.
The WM Phoenix Open typically attracts the greatest players, and this year is no exception with eight of the world’s top 20 scheduled to tee it up.
Traditionally, this tournament has been held throughout the months of January and February and it was originally labelled the Phoenix Open before Friedman Billings Ramsey became the sponsor for the tournament.
The partnership would last only seven years, before Waste Management, Inc. brokered a relationship to become the event’s sponsor from 2010 onwards.
One standout feature of this competition is the crowd that it attracts, not only the sheer numbers but the general attitude of the bystanders.
Through the passion of the local fans, this event has rightfully earned the nickname ‘The Greatest Show on Grass’, which has helped enable it to become one of the most popular PGA Tour events on the seasonal calendar.
The Phoenix Open was established in the year of 1932 but became redundant after the 1935 edition, which resulted in a four-year hiatus.
Bob Goldwater Sr convinced The Thunderbirds, a civic organisation in Phoenix, to reintroduce the event and the Phoenix Country Club played host.
In 1987 - after 35 years of Phoenix Country Club hosting rights - the tournament moved location to its current home, the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale.
The attendance regularly exceeds 500,000 for all four days, which makes it the most-attended event in professional golf.
A PGA Tour record was set in 2016, as 201,003 fans attending the third round is the most on any giving day and the 618,365 fans who attended throughout the week was another record.
Without a single ounce of doubt, the par-3 16th is the pinnacle of the Phoenix Open. Nicknamed ‘The Coliseum’, it is one of the shorter par-3s on the PGA Tour (162 yards) but the temporary grandstand that can accommodate 20,000 fans is why this hole is so unique.
Often refereed to as ‘the ultimate partying experience’, you would not assume that party and golf would go hand-in-hand - and they often don’t - but The Coliseum is an exception of that fact.
Did you know: Of the last 12 events, a victory margin of more than a single stroke has only taken place on two occasions: Phil Mickelson (2013, four strokes) and Rickie Fowler (2019, two strokes).
We can expect a tight finish in Arizona!
The Previous Edition
Brooks Koepka will be heading into Phoenix as the reigning champion, and he is looking to secure his third victory.
Koepka, being five back from leaders Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth heading into the final round, produced a peerless performance that resulted in a six-under 65 to steal victory from the aforementioned duo.
Spieth shot an uninspiring 73 to finish one-over for his fourth round, which resulted in finishing T4th, whilst Schauffele could only muster a 72, losing by a single stroke.
Schauffele started in brilliant fashion - which is what we have come to expect from this impressive American - after he carded 66, 64 and 65 heading into Sunday’s finale.
Spieth, on the other hand, opened with two 67s before a scintillating 61 forced himself into the final pairing.
Carlos Ortiz produced four brilliant rounds in the sixties to record another top 10 from last season - which supported his maiden PGA Tour win at the Houston Open.
Koepka, knowing something special was needed if he was to chase the leading pack through the final day, bogeyed his second hole of the day before immediately bouncing back with an eagle at the par-5 3rd.
Nine pars would be accumulated before a late yet aggressive charge saw three successive birdies place him nicely in contention.
As he produced an excellent tee shot on the 17th hole, he knew birdie would be enough to tie the lead heading to his 72nd and final hole of the tournament.
Instead, he holed out from 97 feet for eagle which was enough to obtain his first win since 2019 - yes, it had really been that long.
Of course, he has endured several spells of injury which has dampened his glittering form that saw him win four majors in only three years.
Did you know: More than ten players completed all four rounds in the sixties during last year’s event.
Five to Shine
As previously stated, this tournament attracts the world’s leading golfers, and this year is no different with the inclusion of the world’s number 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 10 all participating.
Below, we have selected five golfers that we implore you to keep an eye on, whether that be with a chance of winning or a golfer looking to bolster their confidence leading into April’s Masters.
As always, we start with the defending champion but in all honesty, this isn’t just a player who managed to win this title: this is a major championship veteran. If Koepka can handle the pressures that come with the most significant tournaments in golf, we think he can produce a successful defence of this title - capturing his third in the process. His statistics from this season, however, would indicate that victory may not be as straightforward as he would hope. There are 72 bunkers scattered across the Stadium Course, meaning it’s likely he’ll find a few. His sand save percentage is relatively poor for a golfer of his prestige, getting up-and-down 50% of the time and ranking 115th on tour this season.
A weapon that Koepka has always had - and regularly relies on - is his driving distance. Averaging 309 yards off the tee, he ranks 22nd on tour this season and he will need his driver firing on all cylinders if he is to mount a successful challenge. A glaring issue is that he is only locating 55.91% of fairways this season, which ranks him at 165th. Moreover, with a Greens in Regulation percentage of just 66.05%, he ranks 185th on tour. Evidently, Koepka has failed to emulate the success of 2017-2019, but when you are a player of this quality, it only takes a round or two to be back at your absolute best - and this guy has often displayed he can be the best of the best.
Did you know: Brooks Koepka’s true love is baseball, having previously cited he would prefer to have been a professional baseball player - his dad was a pitcher at West Virginia Wesleyan.
With the form that Jon Rahm has continuously and effortlessly demonstrated over the past 12 months, it’s impossible to rule him out of victory for any tournament. How the Spaniard only won one event last season is beyond everyone’s understanding, but scooping his first - of many, let’s be honest - major championships would have softened that blow. Of course, he probably would have won the Memorial Tournament if it wasn’t for the positive COVID test he produced prior to his third round. But overall, yeah, you could argue that Jon Rahm is quite the golfer!
In total, 15 top 10 finishes last season was impressive and although we aren’t into the meat of the new season, he has produced two top 10s so far, finishing runner-up at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T3rd at the Farmers Insurance Open. As you’d expect, all of his statistics result in promising reading but there is one area where he is clearly struggling this year: driving accuracy. With a percentage of 62.50%, it’s certainly not disastrous. The ranking of 85th on tour, however, will undoubtfully irritate him, nonetheless. In short, if Rahm enters a tournament, he’s highly likely to contend come Sunday - and surely that’s the ultimate dream for professional golfers?
Did you know: Jon Rahm first featured at the Phoenix Open in 2015, where he earned a sponsor’s invite and finished T5th - the first time since 2008 that an amateur finished T5th or better.
What a fine golfer Hideki Matsuyama is; it’s so humorous to see him turn around in disgust when he has pulled his approach shot by a matter of feet. Many amateur golfers would be celebrating finding the green but unless Matsuyama is tightly tucked to that pin, he is distraught with himself - now that’s some mentality there! Away from being one of the greatest golfers in the world, and Matsuyama is included in this list as he is a past champion - twice, to be particular. Having triumphed in 2016 via a playoff, he would need to defend his title through a similar route, beating Rickie Fowler in 2016 and Webb Simpson the following year.
It seems daft to suggest - considering his global appeal - but Matsuyama had a breakthrough year during 2021, epitomised by the capture of his first major championship: The Masters. Still, that previous sentence may be harsh, considering he has won the Phoenix Open, Memorial Tournament and two World Golf Championships. Prior to his Augusta masterclass, and his last win came in 2017 - almost a four-year gap between victories. Ironically, since then, he has secured two further titles in the Zozo Championship and the Sony Open. If we peruse his statistics, it will result in excellent reading. As consistent as anyone, his worst ranking comes in driving accuracy, locating 64.03% of fairways and ranking 68th on tour this season. Away from that minor blemish and he drives the ball well past the coveted 300-yard mark (305.8 yards), finds 74.40% of greens (22nd) and boasts a scoring average of a touch above 70 (70.052, 20th). With two wins under his belt already this season, an imminent third could spark an incredible season.
Did you know: Hideki Matsuyama was ranked as the number one in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Boy, is it good to see Rickie Fowler back doing what he’s best at: playing sparkling golf. However, his consistency isn’t quite there yet, which will be high on the priority list going forward. His downfall shocked the golfing world but we are all aware how easy it is to fall into a rut with the game of golf. His resume is really impressive, the only standout absentee is that elusive major title, but there’s plenty of time to secure one of those. His previous victories include: the Scottish Open, the Abu Dhabi Championship, the Wells Fargo Championship, The Players Championship, The Honda Classic and the Waste Management Phoenix Open - can he secure his second title at this prestigious golf course this week?
Fowler is currently ranked 113th in the world…yes, you read that right, 113th. T3rd at the CJ Cup garnered the interest of every golf fan, but he’s not quite where he needs to be as of yet. Still, playing a course he is familiar with and one that he has triumphed at should give him all the incentive needed to get back into the winner’s circle. If we look at his seasonal statistics, there are some areas of his game that rank highly on tour - driving distance (313.1 yards, 12th) and birdie average (4.74, 23rd). The problem is, driving 310+ yards regularly is counteracted when you only locate 61.45% of fairways (96th). He ranks even poorer for Greens in Regulation too, 98th with a percentage of just 70.18%. Still in the midst of piecing his game together, we all know success is largely dependent on mindset. If he can secure his first victory since 2019, then the mindset will be strengthened ready for the height of the season.
Did you know: Rickie Fowler won the Ben Hogan Award in 2008, issued to the best college golfer of that year.
Harold Varner III
Harold Varner joins Jon Rahm as the only two golfers who have failed to pick up this title, but that should not bother him after triumphing in the Saudi International. If you haven’t seen his winning putt yet, we highly encourage you do so. Needing a two-putt birdie to force a playoff, the American went one better and holed a 90-foot eagle putt to steal victory with the last stroke of his tournament. Remember we briefly mentioned the importance of mindset? Nerves of steel from the 31-year-old who recently became a father for the first time. Surprisingly, Varner has only ever recorded two professional wins and neither have been in America. His 2016 victory at the Australian PGA Championship was finally supported with his win at the Saudi International.
Still seeking his inaugural PGA Tour title, he has failed to finish in the top 10 this season but he did record a T11th finish at the Sanderson Farms Championship, T16th at the Fortinet Championship and T22nd at The American Express. So, he’s there or there abouts but his win in Saudi Arabia could ignite previously unknown form. And, to do it in the fashion he did, can only further inject confidence into the two-time professional victor. His seasonal statistics would indicate that he has been sub-par in two very important areas: driving accuracy and Greens in Regulation - ranking 188th and 152nd respectively. They evidently need to improve - rapidly too - if he is to transition his international success to North America. Still, with his second victory finally secured, can we see Varner kick on and become a more renowned character in golf?
Did you know: Harold Varner III has never finished in the top 10 of a major championship - his best finish is T29th at the 2020 PGA Championship, having never featured at Augusta.
These are the five players that we will be keeping an eye on over the course of the WM Phoenix Open.
Each player has the game to win, either capturing this title previously or winning recently, and thus, we can expect stellar performances from them all.
Can Rickie Fowler play his way back into form and the winner’s circle? Who will you be watching closely this week?
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