PHOENIX OPEN: The PGA Tour heads to the desert this week for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a tournament that has grown in prestige in recent years due in part to a fan-friendly, raucous atmosphere that players seem to enjoy. This year’s field includes the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, and Rickie Fowler– five of the top seven players in the current World Rankings– so it’s not a stretch to say that this is the biggest event the world of golf has seen thus far in 2018.
The center of all the fun, and the hole that will be seen/talked about the most this week, is the par-3 16th, an otherwise nondescript hole that is surrounded by grandstands to create an arena-like effect. Here the usual protocols and courtesies that golf fans traditionally observe are mostly discarded, as the drunken masses will cheer, boo, chant, heckle, and chide players in a manner reminiscent of a football game or a soccer match. The once-famous caddie races have now been outlawed, but for the most part the Tour encourages the fun and rowdiness, and, as is evidenced by the quality of the field and the growing profile of this tournament, the players don’t seem to mind.
But the atmosphere isn’t the only thing players enjoy about this tournament: TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, which has played host to this event since 1987, is one of the most well-regarded desert courses in the world, featuring some great risk/reward spots and ample opportunity to swing away with the driver. Originally designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish in 1986, it was renovated by Weiskopf back in 2014 and has been a little tougher over the past couple of years, though scores are still fairly low. Last year’s champion Hideki Matsuyama reached 17-under and still needed a playoff to finish the job, and it’s taken 14-under or better to win here in each of the past 18 stagings.
Matsuyama also took home the trophy in 2016, so it’s no surprise that he’s trading at a shortish 12.5 as he looks for the three-peat. Other favorites include Spieth, who hasn’t played since two mediocre (by his standards) performances in Hawaii but has found the top-10 in both of his previous appearances at this event, and Rahm, who looked like the world’s hottest player until his weekend collapse at Torrey Pines last week.
And as is always the case with fields of this caliber, there’s plenty of value to be found a little further down the board. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (12.0)– Some may think that this price is a little short for Rahm considering he just shot 75-77 over the weekend at Torrey Pines, but great bounce-back performances have been a hallmark of his young career– you don’t have to go back any further than November, when he won the DP World Tour Championship after missing the cut at the Andalucia Masters– and TPC Scottsdale is the perfect place for Rahm to resume his march to the top of the World Golf Rankings. The course both encourages and rewards aggressive play off the tee, and there are very few players better with the driver in their hands than Rahm, who currently ranks third on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee due to his stunning length and surprising accuracy with the big stick. Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge two weeks ago, of course, so the taste of victory is fresh, and he has loads of experience at TPC Scottsdale, and with desert golf in general, after playing collegiately at nearby Arizona State. We’ve already seen evidence of what he can do here: he finished 5th as an amateur back in 2015, and last year he carded a third-round 65 en route to a 16th-place showing. All things considered, I believe Rahm is the man to beat this week.
Byeong-Hun An (66.0)- This will be An’s first PGA Tour start of 2018, and it’s coming at a place he enjoys. Don’t take my word for it– last year An was quoted as saying about TPC Scottsdale, “The course I think just suits my eye… the hole shaping… the yardage fits me nicely on the second shots… I think everything just suits my game on this course. I like desert golf courses.” An would validate those words with a 6th-place finish in his debut appearance, and he was back in the desert last week– a different desert, mind you, in a different part of the world– tying for 6th at the Dubai Desert Classic. He really turned it on in Dubai after an opening-round 72, closing with rounds of 67-65-68 and looking very much like a guy who had put the struggles of late 2017 behind him. A world-class ball-striker who is obviously in good form, An will undoubtedly put himself in position to succeed this week. If he can catch a little heat with the putter the sky’s the limit, making him well worth a bet at a price like 66.0.
Xander Schauffele (122.0)- If you’re looking for a “live” longshot this week, you may want to consider Xander Schauffele, the talented 24-year old who exploded onto the scene last year with two wins in the season’s final three months, including a victory at the Tour Championship. Schauffele isn’t off to a great start in 2018 but it’s nothing too worrisome, as he’s made five of six cuts and has found the top-25 twice so far in this new season. He’s a West Coast guy (born and raised in Southern California) who has lots of experience with desert golf, and, critically, he’s a great driver of the golf ball, ranking 8th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee this season, so he’ll be well-positioned to dominate TPC Scottsdale tee-to-green. Also, his two victories last year came somewhat out of the blue– prior to his win at the Greenbrier he had found the top-10 just once in his previous 17 starts, and his win at the Tour Championship was preceded by finishes of MC-17-53-20– so it wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary for him to contend this week. And if he’s around the lead on Sunday, he’s already proven that he can finish the job. He’s a good one to take a shot on at better than 120/1.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Jordan Spieth (1.73) vs. Rickie Fowler (2.2)
Spieth heads BETDAQ’s Win Market this week and is a threat to win anytime he tees it up, but he’s played sparingly thus far in 2018, and when he has played, the results have been… well, okay. He finished 9th in a 34-man field in Kapalua, then finished 18th at the Sony Open after starting the week, like this week, as the betting favorite. His record at TPC Scottsdale is solid, but not as good as Fowler’s, who lost to Matsuyama in a playoff here in 2016 and followed that up with a 4th-place showing last year. Fowler finished 4th at Kapalua earlier this month, and despite missing the cut last week after a pair of 72s, I think he’s primed for a good result this week. Recommendation: Fowler at 2.2
Brendan Steele (1.91) vs. Gary Woodland (1.91)
Woodland has been playing well lately, with top-10 finishes in each of his past two starts, and his length off the tee should give him an advantage at a place like TPC Scottsdale. That advantage hasn’t really materialized into good results, however, as Woodland has posted two missed cuts and no finishes better than 33rd in his last four appearances at this event. Steele, on the other hand, has experienced quite a bit of success in this tournament and held a share of the 36-hole lead last year before finishing 16th. The Scottsdale resident has also been playing quite well lately, with top-30 finishes in all four of his starts since winning the Safeway Open back in October. Recommendation: Steele at 1.91