Rory McIlroy
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Culp's Corner

Waste Management Phoenix Open Preview

Updated On: February 3, 2021, 6:26 pm ET

The 86th running of The People's Open will take place this week at TPC Scottsdale. 

The Phoenix Open, or The Greenest Show on Grass, is known for its eco-sensitivity and record-setting crowds so it's a natural setting for the return of fans at PGA TOUR events. They will be proceeding with caution, limiting daily attendance to fewer than 5,000 fans through the door but it's still a good step in the right direction. 

The return of fans might provide that extra jolt of adrenaline that many golfers have been missing over the last nine months. 

One of the toughest fields to crack, we'll see just 132 golfers lining it up this week at TPC Scottsdale. It's been a strong field for a while now and this year is no exception, especially with the addition of Rory McIlroy who is making his tournament debut. I'm sure the tournament officials would love to expand this field to 156 but daylight is always an issue at this time of year when using just one course at an event.

Even with just 132 golfers we shouldn't be surprised when Thursday and Friday rounds bleed over into the next day, especially if/when there are frost delays in the morning. It happens almost every year. 

The field will be trimmed down to the top 65 and ties after 36 holes and it becomes much easier to fight daylight after the field is reduced. 


The Course

The Phoenix Open is the fifth-oldest event on TOUR, first run in 1932 at Phoenix CC. The tournament has been hosted at TPC Scottsdale since 1987 so there is plenty of course history to dive into when it comes to recommending a player or looking for the style of golf that works well here in the desert. 

TPC Scottsdale was laid out by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf in 1986 and Weiskopf returned in 2014 to make some redesign tweaks. He utilized ShotLink data to reposition some bunkers and try to catch up with the distance gains, in a way. The course can play a bit tougher now, after the redesign, but overall it's not going to give these pros a headache. Especially compared to last week's venue in La Jolla which can wear you down with bogey after bogey. 

Here at TPC Scottdale, there aren't that many double bogeys or worse recorded which helps the scoring baseline. You can usually recover from the rough unless you get unlucky in the native area. There is water in play on six holes but most of the water found is on the par 5s or short par 4s which you can still recover from to save par or salvage bogey at a reasonable clip. 

Looking at winning scores we notice that 12 of the last 13 winners have finished the week between 14- and 18-under-par with the exception being Phil Mickelson in 2013 when he cruised to 28-under, shortly before the course redesign. 

As for Scottsdale, it's a par 71 that plays to 7,261 yards. There is some altitude in Scottsdale (about 1,500 feet above sea level) which helps the ball fly a little further. As a result, you could say this course plays relatively short and the evidence supports that when you watch and see how many wedges and short irons they hit throughout the round. 

One of the key defenses of the course is the firmness of the greens. Year after year you will hear golfers talking about how firm the greens are and that makes it crucial to hit your targets on approach. A high ball flight works wonders here but also helps just to have shorter clubs in your hand due to driving distance. Golfers frequently talk about the advantage of length here at TPC Scottsdale. It's not required but when you look at the recent leaderboards it's easy to see that distance helps at TPC Scottsdale. 

For turf talk, golfers will see a bermudagrass base that is overseeded with ryegrass and fine fescue. As you reach the greens you will see that bermudagrass overseeded with ryegrass and poa trivialis. Golfers do not really talk about the bermuda here which tells us it's usually dormant and ryegrass the predominant turf in early February. It makes sense when you consider all of the frost delays this event has. Bermuda does not like the extreme cold so it doesn't pop back until later in the season when overnight temps aren't so cold. 


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Course Quotes

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

Hudson Swafford: "Just playing aggressive to conservative targets and giving myself a chance. I feel like I’m rolling it good. So you got to do that out here, as firm as the greens are, so it’s tough to be even aggressive with a lob wedge on some holes. So, yeah, just staying patient and having fun."

Gary Woodland: "Length’s a huge advantage, especially 15’s tough second shot in there. 13, I can take out a lot of the trouble with driver. 3, some guys can’t get to some days and I can. So outside of that, the greens get pretty firm, so you got to drive the golf ball in the fairway. " 

Martin Laird: "early in the morning it’s playing long, really long. 11th hole yesterday I had 3-wood/wedge, and today I had driver/6-iron. That just shows you the difference starting early as opposed to in the afternoon." 

Beau Hossler: "I think you got to stay patient out here. The golf course has a lot of holes that you can be aggressive on with wedges, but at the same time there’s some really meaty par-4s that you got to try and make pars on. So I think it’s kind of trying to pick your spots and then realizing that the greens are pretty good and you can make a lot of 20 footers out here if you’re rolling it well"

Bubba Watson: "You can play out of the rough here, which I’m in a lot. The greens are very receptive, so even out of the rough I can hit some high shots and get them to stop on the greens. " 

Golfers talk a lot about length being an advantage and firm greens before a key defense. 


Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week: 

Torrey Pines
Waialae CC
Quail Hollow CC

We see a lot of crossover success between this event and January events so golfers that play well after the holiday break tend to keep playing well here. Quail Hollow gets added to the correlation mix primarily because it's a course that lets you hit a lot of drivers and features ryegrass rough. The greens can also get pretty slick. 


The Weather

Thursday: Sunny with a high of 65 degrees. Calm winds around 5 MPH. 

Friday: Mostly Sunny with a high of 67 degrees. Calm winds around 6 to 9 MPH. 

It looks like a beautiful weather week for golf. You'd expect nothing less when strolling into the Scottsdale area. 

Golfers to Watch

Jon Rahm
He had a precautionary WD ahead of The AmEx a few weeks ago but proved that was a non-factor last week when he got into the hunt at Torrey Pines. Now he heads home for the Phoenix Open, a comfortable event where he's finished T16 or better in all five appearances. 

Rory McIlroy
He's finally making his debut at TPC Scottsdale and it should be a great venue for him since the course rewards elite off-the-tee play. McIlroy has kept busy during the "offseason" and looks sharp with a solo 3rd in Abu Dhabi followed up with a T16 last week at the Farmers. His performance was a little better than the result on paper because he starting Sunday in the hunt before fading. 

Hideki Matsuyama
It was love at first sight for Matsuyama and TPC Scottsdale. He finished T4-T2-WIN-WIN in his first four trips. Then he withdrew with an injury in 2018 and has "settled" for finishes of T15 and T16 in his two return visits. 

Rickie Fowler
Similar to Matsuyama, this is an event that has been very kind to Fowler. He's finished T11 or better, including a win, in four of his last five visits to TPC Scottsdale. More recently, he's trying to iron out his swing changes and hasn't posted a top-20 finish since the WGC-FedEx St. Jude in August (11 starts ago). This is a classic battle of course history versus form. 

Xander Schauffele
He continued with his run of top-25 finishes last week with a T2 at the Farmers. He now has top 25s in 14 straight events and 19 of his last 20 starts. He's also 3-for-3 in Phoenix with all three doubling as top 20s (T17-T10-T16). 

Will Zalatoris
He showed no signs of rust last week at Torrey Pines which was a bit surprising to me since we hadn't seen him in competition for so long. It's hard to say anything is "holding him back" but Zalatoris has lost strokes putting in 54% of his measured rounds in the last year. That's a huge improvement over his early-season numbers but there is still room for improvement there if he wants to become a complete package. His elite ball-striking skills will make him a strong weekly target anytime he pegs it. 

Brendan Steele
This will be a home game for Steele (any about a third of the field). Looking at his record in the desert, Steele has finished T6 or better in four of his 10 WMPO appearances. He's also missed the cut in his last two trips. More recently, he's been T15 or better after 6-of-8 rounds played since the holiday break. Can he stay hot? A little home comfort should only help. 



Ranking the Field 

1. Xander Schauffele
2. Jon Rahm
3. Justin Thomas
4. Rory McIlroy
5. Webb Simpson
6. Daniel Berger
7. Hideki Matsuyama
8. Harris English
9. Will Zalatoris
10. Russell Henley
11. Scottie Scheffler
12. Ryan Palmer
13. Louis Oosthuizen
14. Bubba Watson
15. Sungjae Im
16. Billy Horschel
17. Brooks Koepka
18. Rickie Fowler
19. Gary Woodland
20. John Huh

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