Phoenix Open Preview, Tips & Analysis
TIGER WOODS makes his long-awaited return to action on the PGA Tour at the Phoenix Open this week or, as they insist upon calling it, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. It is the first of five events he has committed to in the run-up to The Masters, and he says he is raring to go.
It is the first time Woods has played in the tournament for 14 years and he can be sure of what would best be described as an "enthusiastic" welcome. This tournament attracts vast crowds. Vast, rowdy crowds. Vast, rowdy crowds who enjoy a beer or two and, as a consequence, make a LOT of noise.
But at least they enjoy themselves, and so do the players.
With Woods' participation, a full house was always guaranteed at the TPC Stadium course. Under normal circumstances, crowds of 500,000 people pour in over four days, and a vast number of those flock to the par-three 16th hole. Good shots are greeted with raucous cheering, while shots that miss the putting surface are booed. It is terrific fun.
In 1997, Woods sent the gallery barmy when he had a hole in one at the 16th. It was one of those surreal moments in golf that reminds you why so many people love it. Two years later, fans came to his rescue when his ball finished next to a giant boulder - a large group joined forces to move the obstacle of fun elements from the event. In previous years caddies, carrying full bags, used to race each other from tee to green, but that was banned last year on safety grounds, even though nobody has ever been hurt.
This time they have banned players from giving goodies to fans in the grandstands. Gloves, hats, golf balls - 12 months ago Phil Mickelson tossed American footballs - have all been thrown into the crowd, but that has now been barred too.
The most popular golfer at the Phoenix Open is Phil Mickelson, who attended university at nearby Arizona State. In addition to the golf, there is a concert/party held in the Scottsdale area called the Birds Nest, at which music artists like Huey Lewis and the News take part. Fortunately, health and safety have yet to find a reason to stop this.
In 2013, the tournament set a PGA Tour single-day attendance record when 179,022 fans attended on the Saturday. Last year, the Phoenix Open set a tournament week attendance record of 563,008 fans - that will surely be surpassed this week as spectators can just turn up and buy tickets at the gate. And they only cost $30 a day.
In recent years, it has been played on Super Bowl weekend. In 2009, the tournament overlapped with the Super Bowl when Kenny Perry and Charley Hoffman were involved in a playoff, subsequently denying the spectators a chance to watch the beginning of the game, featuring the Arizona Cardinals.
So who is going to win? It would be easy to get carried along with all the hype and plump for Woods but as astonishing an athlete as he is, it would be a huge surprise of he were to be in contention. He is still honing a new swing and anybody who watched his struggles around the green during his own tournament in December will know that his short game is way, way off the mark. It is inconceivable that he will repeat the duffed chips, but will he be able to hit the ball straight?
He drove well enough at the Hero World Challenge, but that was only an invitational event - and he finished last. There are also question marks over his putting. In his prime, he was probably as good as there has ever been at holing putts that mattered, but it's a while since we have witnessed that sort of magic.
He will enjoy his return and there are lots of wide open fairways so he may not get himself into terribly much trouble, but a win? It ios asking too much.
So where does that leave us? There were signs at the Humana Challenge that the new streamline Phil MIckelson has arrived for the new season fit, firing and ready to go. He is a huge fan favourite in Phoenix as he went to Arizona State University, so they regard him as one of their own. He has also won the tournament three times.
Patrick Reed is bursting with confidence (isn't he always) and he is a good ole boy, the sort that the fans love to root for. He has made a wonderful start to 2015 and will surely be in the mix.
But my money is going on Rickie Fowler. He had a massive year in 2014, finishing in the top five in all four majors. He needs to start winning (thus far he has only taken one PGA Tour title) and this is the year when that will happen.
To win: Rickie Fowler 20/1
Each-way: Phil Mickelson 25/1
Rickie Fowler 20/1 - Ready to move to the next level. The extrovert Fowler will surely feed off the noisy crowd and win his second Tour title
Phil Mickelson 25/1 - there won't be a dry eye in the house if Lefty adds a fourth success to his list. Needs to prove that his awful 2014 was a one-off
Tiger Woods 15/1 - despite everything, it would be perverse to name a fantasy team and not have him in the line-up
Matt Kuchar 20/1 - the most consistent golfer on the planet if a shoo-in to be in contention at a venue he loves
Ryan Palmer 28/1 - Palmer was almost my tip to win. He continues to improve and will be keen to strike some blows for the thirty-something
Jordan Spieth 15/1 - won his final two events in 2014. Having now won three times, watch the young tyro go this season
Bubba Watson 20/1 - Watson will have almost as much support as Woods and Mickelson and his "hit-it-and-find-it approach" has nearly worked here in the past
Kevin Na 50/1 - having finally sorted out what is going on between his ears, Na is proving what we always new - he is a quality act
Justin Thomas 50/1 - I really like the look of this kid and he has already proved that finishing fifth on the Web.com Tour in 2014 was no fluke by continuing his fine form
Jason Kokrak 150/1 - keeps getting himself into contention without being able to finish the job, but that has to end sometime, right? Don't make me look stupid Jason
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Tags: PGA Tour