10 Players to Watch: Waste Management Phoenix Open

  1. Justin Thomas, United States — The best player in the world so far this season, Thomas is coming off a two-week break since he swept through Hawaii by winning the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua by three strokes and the Sony Open in Hawaii by seven after opening with a 59 at Waialae. He also successfully defended his title in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in November and has four top-10 finishes since tying for eighth in the Safeway Open to open the 2016-17 campaign. The 23-year-old Thomas, whose four PGA Tour victories have all come in the last two seasons, leads the FedExCup standings and has risen to No. 8 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He is making his third start in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and tied for 17th two years ago, sliding out of the top 10 by shooting 72 in the final round, before he posted a score of 72-72 — 144 to miss the cut by two strokes last year at TPC Scottsdale.
  1. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — Back to defend his title in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the 24-year-old Matsuyama was the hottest player in the world until finishing second to Justin Thomas in both the CIMB Classic and the SBS Tournament of Champions after winning four tournaments, two at home in Japan, late last year. He has cooled a bit since, tying for 27th at the Sony Open in Hawaii and tying for 33rd in the Farmers Insurance Open. Matsuyama, who is second in the FedExCup standings and No. 5 in the world, is making his fourth appearance in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and does he love TPC Scottsdale. He claimed the second of his three PGA Tour victories last year by beating Rickie Fowler with a par on the fourth playoff hole after tying for second, one stroke behind Brooks Koepka the year before and tying for fourth in 2014. Matsuyama has broken 70 in 11 of his 12 rounds on the Stadium Course and is a cumulative 42-under-par.
  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — After taking two weeks off and slipping to No. 6 in the world one year after holding the No. 1 spot, Spieth is looking to really ramp up his season this week when he makes his second start in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He got the year off to a solid start by tying for third in his title defense in the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, shooting 63 in the final round, and also tied for third at the Sony Open in Hawaii, closing with a 63. Spieth has broken 70 in five consecutive rounds and six of his last seven. In his only previous appearance at TPC Scottsdale, he closed with a 65 to tie for seventh, four shots behind winner Brooks Koepka in 2015. Spieth has claimed seven of his eight PGA Tour victories in the last two years, but has not won on the circuit since the Dean & DeLuca Invitational last May, although he captured the Australian Open for the second time in November.
  1. Jon Rahm, Spain — The 22-year-old rookie from Arizona State returns to the Valley of the Sun this week after claiming his first PGA Tour victory on Sunday by three strokes in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he closed with a 7-under-par 65 that included two eagles on the back nine. Two years ago as a junior at ASU, he thrilled the crowd at TPC Scottsdale by making a bid to become the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson, another Sun Devil, captured the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. After opening with a 70 in 2015, Rahm reeled off three straight 68s to wind up in a tie for fifth, three shots behind winner Brooks Koepka. He earned his PGA Tour card last year in four events after graduating, then started his first full season with a tie for 15th in the Safeway Open, making a hole in one on his fifth shot as a tour member, and also tied for 15th in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
  1. Bubba Watson, United States — Having fallen to No. 12 in the world, Bubba would like to kick-start his season and climb back into the top 10 with another strong performance in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He is playing at TPC Scottsdale for the 11th consecutive year and has posted four finishes in the top 10 and seven in the top 25. He came close to winning two years in a row, taking the lead into the final round in 2014 before closing with a 71 to tie for second, one stroke behind Kevin Stadler, and rallied with a 65 the following year to again tie for second, one shot behind Brooks Koepka. Watson also tied for eighth in 2007 and tied for fifth in 2012, and last year tied for 14th when a third-round 73 cost him another top-10 result. He has yet to really get going this season, tying for 54th in the WGC-HSBC Champions and tying for 25th in the SBS Tournament of Champions.
  1. Patrick Reed, United States — Seeming to start ramping it up for the long season, Reed tied for sixth in the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, where he shot 65 in the second round, and then he tied for 12th two weeks ago in the CareerBuilder Challenge, closing with another 65. He is ranked No. 9 in the world, having won at least once in each of the last four seasons on the PGA Tour, and has five victories on the circuit at the age of 26. Reed, whose last victory came in the Barclays to open the FedExCup playoffs in August, has proven to be a standout for the United States in the team events and is looking forward to the Presidents Cup late this summer after starring as the Americans regaining the Ryder Cup in 2016. He will tee it up in the Waste Management Phoenix Open for the third time, having faded to a tie for 19th in 2014 after he opened with 67-67, and he also tied for 40th two years ago.
  1. Russell Knox, Scotland — This will be Knox’s sixth start of the 2016-17 season and he has finished in the top 20 in the previous five, highlighted by a solo third in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He was solid but not spectacular in the Hawaii events, tying for 17th in the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua and tying for tying for 11th at the Sony Open in Hawaii, closing with a 64 at Waialae in his last outing. Knox has taken two weeks off so he will be fresh when he tees it up on Thursday in the Waste Management Phoenix Open for the second time, having tied for 15th in 2015, when he shot 65 in the third round at TPC Scottsdale. Knox has climbed to No. 18 in the World Golf Rankings on the strength of his first two victories on the PGA Tour in the 2015 WGC-HSBC Champions in China and the 2016 Travelers Championship.
  1. Phil Mickelson, United States — This will be Lefty’s 28th straight start in one of his favorite tournaments on the PGA Tour, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which he first played when he still was a student at Arizona State. He has won the event three times, part of his total of 19 titles in California and Arizona. Mickelson beat Justin Leonard at TPC Scottsdale with a four-foot birdie putt on the third playoff hole in 1996, shot 60 in round two en route to a five-shot victory in 2005 and opened with another 60 on his way to a four-stroke victory in 2013. He also lost out to a birdie by J.B. Holmes on the first extra hole in 2008. In three starts this season, Mickelson has played well at times but is looking for consistency as he tied for eighth in the Safeway Open, and after he underwent two hernia surgeries, he tied for 21st in the CareerBuilder Challenge and tied for 14th in the Farmers Insurance Open.
  1. Ryan Moore, United States — After scoring the winning point for the United States in its Ryder Cup victory over Europe at Hazeltine in October, Moore kept up his fine play by posting four consecutive top-25 finishes to start the 2016-17 season. That was capped by a tie for third in the SBS Tournament of Champions, but he might have run out of gas in Kapalua, where he opened with 67-67, but faded a bit on the weekend with 71-71 to wind up six strokes behind champion Justin Thomas. With three weeks off, Moore is well-rested as he arrives at TPC Scottsdale for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which he is playing for the 12th straight time. He has finished in the top 20 each of the last four years, including solo fourth in 2013, a tie for sixth in 2014, a tie for 17th in 2015 and a tie for 11th last year. Moore also tied for sixth in 2009.
  1. Brendan Steele, United States — Finally getting comfortable with a conventional putter after his long wand was banned by the R&A and the USGA, Steele is off to the best start of his career in the 2016-17 season. He captured the season-opening Safeway Open in October by one stroke over Patton Kizzire with a closing 65 and followed with ties for sixth in the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua and the CareerBuilder Challenge. Steele wasn’t quite as sharp last week in the Farmers Insurance Open, but still managed a tie for 20th, despite a 74 in the second round. He is making his seventh start in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and finished in the top 10 three times at TPC Scottsdale, including a tie for fifth in 2012 when he closed with a 64. Steele also tied for sixth in both 2013, when he went 65-65 in the middle rounds, and 2014, when he shot 62 in round three after seemingly being on his way to missing the cut after opening with 74.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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