(CBSLA/CBS Local) — The Waste Management Phoenix Open will be the most well-attended sporting event this weekend, Super Bowl LIV notwithstanding. The People’s Open, or the “greatest show on grass,” if you prefer, routinely draws north of half a million people over its four days at TPC Scottsdale. This year’s event will likely be the same, with a celebratory atmosphere that’s helped make it the PGA Tour’s Tournament of the Year in four of the last six years.
The crowds arrive ready for a good time. And no place is that more apparent than in the grandstands surrounding the par-three 16th hole. “The Coliseum” seats 20,000 fans, who create an environment more commonly seen at a college football game. “The crowds get behind this event,” according to CBS Sports golf analyst and on-course reporter Mark Immelman. “It’s a great golf course for viewing. The TPC Scottsdale is expansive, so there’s lots of room to get around.”
Unique as Waste Management is for the PGA Tour (and possibly because of it), the tournament attracts a solid field. The 2020 edition includes three of the World Golf Ranking’s top-10 players. Third-ranked Jon Rahm, who resides in nearby Phoenix, finished second at the Farmers Insurance Open last week. He’ll be grouped with Justin Thomas, ranked fourth, who started off 2020 with a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Xander Schauffele, who sits ninth, is coming off a disappointing missed cut at the Farmers, but turned in a T2 at Sentry a couple weeks before. Webb Simpson, Tony Finau, and Bryson DeChambeau, not to mention recent champions Hideki Matsuyama (2016, 2017) and Rickie Fowler (2019) fill out the field.
“But, for me, certainly the two big stories are J.T. and Rahm,” says Immelman. Justin Thomas “…won earlier this year in Hawaii at the Tournament of Champions. You’ve got Jon Rahm, the number-three player in the world, who’s coming off a runner-up finish at Torrey Pines last week. Rahm has been on a tear globally. He’s had, I think, three wins in his last 11 starts around the world. He’s playing well, Justin is playing well. And then you’ve got a field of your usual contenders, with Matsuyama and (Matt) Kuchar and Rickie Fowler. So it’s a really good field.”
They’ll face beautiful weather and beautiful conditions at a TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course that extends to 7,261 yards and checks in at par-71. Good weather sets the stage for lots of scoring, if players can navigate the narrow fairways and hit the immaculate greens.
Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish designed the course, which was built in the late 1980s and upgraded in 2014. The back nine seems particularly well suited for tournament play. The 15th hole is a 553-yard island par-five, a somewhat unusual combination (usually island holes are par-threes) that presents some scoring opportunities for players willing to take a risk. The much talked-about 16th — a 163-yard par-three surrounded by raucous fans — is among the PGA Tour’s shorter holes. The 17th hole, a par-4 that measures 332 yards, lets players go hunting for birdies. The 18th, a longer par-four at 442 yards, sets up an exciting finish.
Low scores aren’t unusual at the Waste Management, with all but one winning score in the last decade hitting at least 15-under. (Hideki Matsuyama won the 2016 edition with 14-under.) “If you can drive it well and drive it long, that’s helpful,” notes Immelman. “I still think it’s a second-shot golf course though, because the greens are always spectacular. There’s not a lot of rough. You don’t have to be that accurate. You’ve just got to keep the ball out of the desert area and out of the cacti.”
In Immelman’s view, that has implications for how players approach the course. “If you get the ball into the right quadrants of some of these sloping greens, then you have a leg up on the competition. It’s a second-shot golf course, and if you’re good around the greens, you’re going to be okay. You’ll be a contender.”
Here are the favorites:
Jon Rahm (11-2)
Going into the 18th hole of the final round at the Farmers Insurance Open, Rahm didn’t know the correct score. His birdie left him in second place, one stroke short of forcing a playoff. The hottest player on the PGA Tour won’t make that mistake again. “Rahm is the guy to beat,” says Immelman. “He’s coming in here playing well. I think he’s got a bit of a chip on the shoulder after the misstep early in the final round at Torrey Pines last week. He still made a run at the title. But I think there’s unfinished business there for the Spaniard.”
Justin Thomas (9-1)
Thomas has placed in the top five in four of his last six events, and finished third at the Waste Management last year. He’s among the best on Tour in shots gained tee-to-green, which should serve him well at TPC Scottsdale.
Webb Simpson (11-1)
Simpson, who’s ranked 11th in the world, finished third at the Sony Open and has made the top 10 in his last four events. He tops the PGA Tour in Total Shots Gained.