WM Phoenix Open Preview

  • In Sports/Golf
  • 2023-02-06 20:39:43Z
  • By NBC Sports EDGE

There is a big football game happening in Phoenix this Sunday but another sporting event has my attention. It's the WM Phoenix Open, also known as The People's Open.

While this tournament always draws a nice field, that strength is amplified this week as it's the first "full field" designated event on the PGA TOUR schedule. That means $20 million will be up for grabs this week at TPC Scottsdale so the stakes are as high as ever in the Arizona desert.

Fans will likely be glad to hear we are done with the multi-course events but daylight still limits this week's field to a reasonable 132 golfers. However, the demand of it being a designated event has overfilled that list just a bit, so there will be 135 golfers set to peg it once the three Monday qualifiers earn their spot. That means the list of alternates won't be touched unless the field dips below that 132 number due to pre-tournament WDs.

The Course

TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course is the host venue. It's played that same role since the 1987 edition, just shortly after the course opened.

Glancing at the scorecard we see a par 71 that plays to 7,261 yards which can be adjusted due to the heat and elevation. Sometimes there are chilly mornings where the ball doesn't seem to go anywhere and other times it heats up and feels like it flies for miles.

One important thing we see right away is that 8 percent of missed fairways lead to a penalty here, which is the third highest among regular TOUR stops (Sea Island, TPC River Highlands). Those penalties come on risk-reward holes so even with that high rate of penalty, there is still a relatively low rate of double bogeys or worse. That puts an emphasis on steady driving right from the start.

Another key characteristic of the course is firm, desert terrain. That means fairways are often tough to hold and more importantly, greens are tough to hold if you aren't attacking with a wedge or from the fairway.

As Danny Lee put it in 2016, "The greens being so firm, you kind of forced to hit driver at tee shot. You want to hit a shorter club on second shot."

A 2014 renovation attempted to lower the advantage of driving distance but I don't think they accounted for the boom of distance that was just around the corner. Big hitters are still able to carry some of the trouble and pick up a stroke here or there over the course of the week.

For turf, they'll see beautifully manicured overseeded rye from tee-to-green and poa trivialis on the greens (not to be confused with poa annua). The greens are slightly larger than TOUR average at 7,069 square feet but firm and fast conditions often make it tough to land it too close to the pins.

The scoring environment as a whole is tougher than before the 2014 renovation but still on the easy side of the scoring spectrum when looking at all PGA TOUR stops. There aren't a lot of blowup holes and the course is set up to allow for lots of birdie streaks, particularly coming down the stretch with birdie rates over 40 percent at the 13th, 15th, and 17th.

Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Bubba Watson in 2019: "The golf course is obviously tougher since they redid it and there's some advantage to just go ahead and hit it as hard as you can and go find it and hopefully it doesn't get behind a cactus and then play from there."

Viktor Hovland in 2022: "You'd think it would be pretty easy, but just with how the greens are so firm and fast, it's hard to get real close to the pins. Even if you hit a good shot and it rolls out to 40 feet, it's even hard just to two-putt it."

Graeme McDowell in 2022: "It's a reasonably straightforward tee to green, but it's in and around the greens you have to be careful. There are some slopes and some runoff areas in these greens that you just have to be, you have to pay attention with your iron play."

Hit it a long way and play smart with your approach shots. That's the recipe for success at TPC Scottsdale.

Correlated Courses

Using historical data we can look at overperformance and underperformance at this week's host course and compare that to all of the courses played out on TOUR. Here are the ones that shared a lot of overlap:

Riviera CC
Narashino CC
Torrey Pines
Muirfield Village GC

Be confident with the driver and comfortable out West.

The Weather

Thursday: Sunny with a high of 71 degrees. Winds at 8 to 12 MPH with gusts flirting with 20 MPH.

Friday: Sunny with a high of 73 degrees. Winds at 8 to 12 MPH with gusts flirting with 25 MPH.

It won't be ugly like we saw last week at Pebble Beach but there does look to be the potential for some breezy conditions at times.

Golfers to Watch

Rory McIlroy
He sits atop the OWGR and backed it up with three wins in his last seven worldwide starts, "settling" for top 5s in the other four starts. He's not a regular at this event over the years but did say this when making an appearance in 2021, "I've always been told that this course in Scottsdale would be a good fit for my game, so thought I would try it out this year." He finished T13 that week.

Jon Rahm
While McIlroy is backing up his World No.1 spot, Rahm is doing his best to erase some so-so results in the majors which have him sitting at just 3rd in the OWGR. Rahm is arriving with wins in four of his last seven worldwide starts, four of his last six if you consider the Hero World Challenge an exhibition. The Spaniard also has home course advantage this week, being a local resident who also attended Arizona State.

Rickie Fowler
He didn't crack my top-20 rankings but you certainly have to give him a look this week based on the way he's playing since returning to Butch Harmon's stable. Fowler's also a bit of a course horse at TPC Scottsdale with a win (2019) and a pair of runner-up finishes (2010, 2016) on his resume.

Jason Day
It seems like we've traveled back 10 years with Justin Rose winning last week at Pebble Beach, Fowler finding his form again, and Jason Day showing signs of life recently, as well. The Aussie has finished T21 or better in six of his last seven starts but has nothing better than a T20 finish in four tries at TPC Scottsdale.

Taylor Montgomery
It's possible he'll get overlooked in such a strong field this week but Montgomery still has top 15s in 19 of his last 24 starts, eight of those coming on the PGA TOUR circuit. He also has Las Vegas roots so he should be comfortable playing some desert golf.

Tony Finau
Gamers will have an interesting decision to make with Finau this week. The local resident has missed the cut in five of his seven tries at the WM Phoenix Open. One of those cuts made was a runner-up finish just three years ago so it's been all or nothing for the Big Samoan in Phoenix.

Ranking the Field

1. Jon Rahm
2. Rory McIlroy
3. Xander Schauffele
4. Scottie Scheffler
5. Patrick Cantlay
6. Tony Finau
7. Justin Thomas
8. Max Homa
9. Collin Morikawa
10. Viktor Hovland
11. Sungjae Im
12. Tom Kim
13. Tyrrell Hatton
14. Cameron Young
15. Matt Fitzpatrick
16. Taylor Montgomery
17. Jason Day
18. Jordan Spieth
19. Tommy Fleetwood
20. Sam Burns


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