By Tom LaMarre
The West Coat Swing heads to Arizona this week for the most fan-friendly tournament on the PGA Tour, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, otherwise known as “The Greatest Show on Grass.”
This will be the 84th edition of what started out as the Arizona Open in 1932, with previous winners including Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Jimmy Demaret, Bobby Locke and other legends of the game.
However, none of them ever played in an event like the one it has become.
The tournament at TPC Scottsdale https://tpc.com/scottsdale set a four-day PGA Tour attendance record of 655,434 last year, them many of them parked at the stadium-like 162-yard, par-3 16th hole. That’s where a party-like atmosphere greets the players when they walk out of a tunnel into the sunshine and a cauldron of noise created by 20,000 well-watered fans.
The crowd, sometimes encouraged by the golfers, is on its feet cheering even as the players set-up to hit their tee ball, with good shots greeted with roars and sub-par efforts bringing jeers.
Many of the fans in attendance at the hole are students at nearby Arizona State, so naturally Sun Devil greats Phil Mickelson and sixth-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain will get the loudest cheers, but are not immune to the wrath of the crowd if they hit a bad shot.
Mickelson will be trying to win the tournament for a record fourth time, the last in 2013, which would break a tie with Palmer, Gene Littler and Mark Calcavecchia. Lefty can also claim his 20th victory on the West Coast Swing, two weeks after missing out by one stroke in his 2019 debut the Desert Classic.
Tiger Woods is not in the field, even though he provided one of the most memorable moments in tournament history with a hole in one on the 16th hole in 1997, causing the fans to nearly tear the grandstand down.
Also in the field are defending champion Gary Woodland, who barely missed winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions to start 2019, two-time Waste Management winner Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, fourth-ranked Justin Thomas and 11th-ranked Tony Finau.
Matt Kuchar and seventh-ranked Xander Schauffele have already won twice in the 2018-19 season and will try to hit the trifecta in Scottsdale.
“Well, I don’t think it can be any crazier than a Super Bowl weekend and the Phoenix Open at the same time,” said Charley Hoffman, who almost won the tournament in 2009 before losing in a playoff to Kenny Perry.
After the tournament winner is crowned on Sunday, many of the fans will adjourn to the onsite Bird’s Nest as they do after every round, this time to watch the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
- Jon Rahm, Spain – A local favorite who played nearby at Arizona State, the sixth-ranked Rahm tied for fifth at TPC Scottsdale as an amateur in 2015 before tying for 16th and tying for 11th the last two years. He tied for fifth last week in the Farmers Insurance Open, his fourth straight top-10 finish, starting with a win in the Hero World Challenge.
- Hideki Matsuyama, Japan – A wrist injury led to a sub-par 2018, but Matsuyama was back on his game with a tie for third in the Farmers Insurance Open. Two of his five PGA Tour victories came in the Phoenix event, in playoffs over Rickie Fowler in 2016 and over Webb Simpson in 2017. Also tied for second in 2015 and tied for fourth in 2014.
- Justin Thomas, United States – The fourth-ranked Thomas got the 2019 off to a solid start with a tie for third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a tie for 16th at the Sony Open in Hawaii. After skipping the first two events in California, he is playing at TPC Scottsdale for the fifth time, having recorded two ties for 17th and two missed cuts.
- Xander Schauffele, United States – The FedEx Cup points leader after winning the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Schauffele is coming to TPC Scottsdale off a tie for 25th in the Farmers. In his first appearance in the Waste Management Phoenix Open last year, the seventh-ranked Schauffele tied for 17th.
- Phil Mickelson, United States – Lefty is a local hero who played at Arizona State and lived in the Phoenix area for a while, and he has won at TPC Scottsdale three times, the last in 2013, among nine top-10 finishes. Mickelson fell one stroke short of his 44th PGA Tour victory in the Desert Classic two weeks ago after leading much of the way.
- Gary Woodland, United States – The defending champion at TPC Scottsdale, where he beat Chez Reavie in a playoff, Woodland has five top-10 finishes in the new season, including seconds in the CJ Cup and Sentry Tournament of Champions, plus a tie for fifth last week in the Farmers. That puts him third in the 2018-19 FedEx Cup standings.
- Matt Kuchar, United States – Kooch and Xander Schauffele are the only two-time winners early in the 2018-19 season, putting him second in the FedEx Cup standings. He is playing TPC Scottsdale for the 10th time and recorded his best result with a tie for fifth last year, one of his three top-10s. Back two weeks after winning Sony Open in Hawaii.
- Tony Finau, United States – Will be trying to climb back into the top 10 of the World Golf Rankings after slipping to No. 11 with a tie for 13th in the Farmers Insurance Open last week. To achieve that, he will have to reverse his fortunes at TPC Scottsdale, where he missed the cut in each of the last three years after tying for 22nd in his 2015 debut.
- Rickie Fowler, United States – After struggling to a tie for 66th in the Farmers Insurance Open in his first start of 2019, Fowler heads to Phoenix, where he took the lead to the final round last year before closing with a 73 to tie for 11th. He also lost to Hideki Matsuyama in a playoff in 2016, finished second in 2010 and tied for fourth in 2017.
- Webb Simpson, United States – The 2012 U.S. Open champ, who overcame a mid-career slump by winning the 2018 Players Championship, started the new season with a tie for third in the RSM Classic and a tie for eighth in the Sentry TOC. Lost to Hideki Matsuyama in a 2017 playoff at TPC Scottsdale, where he has three other top-10s.
- Cameron Champ, United States – The long-hitting Champ doesn’t figure to be a longshot much longer, having already won and posted 3 top-10s as a rookie.
- Byeong Hun An, South Korea – Closed with a 73 to finish sixth after leading at TPC Scottsdale two years ago and tied for 23rd last year. Has three international victories.
- Talor Gooch, United States – After 14 missed cuts as a PGA Tour rookie last year, Gooch started 2019 by with a solo fourth in the Desert Classic and a T3 in the Farmers.
- Chez Reavie, United States – Lost in playoff to Gary Woodland at TPC Scottsdale last year and has posted two top-10s this season, breaking 70 in each of his last 12 rounds.
- Aaron Wise, South Africa – The 2018 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson, makes first appearance in Phoenix. Has two top-25s this season.