Patrick Reed is often the center of rules controversy on the PGA Tour and found himself there once again in Saturday's third round of the Farmers Insurance Open. Reed had picked up his ball from what was believed to be an embedded lie in the rough on the 10th hole. A rules official was called in and a free drop was awarded. The controversy had no bearing on the final result as Reed, priced as high as 25-1, earned his ninth career PGA Tour victory with a five-stroke win over Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland, Ryan Palmer and Henrik Norlander.
Reed and several other Americans will travel to Saudi Arabia to play in this week’s European Tour event. Despite all the talent going to the Middle East, plenty remains stateside to play another desert event, the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale.
Scottsdale resident and OWGR No. 2 Jon Rahm, off a tie for seventh at Torrey Pines, is once again the tournament favorite at 7-1. Justin Thomas, a week removed from a rare missed cut in Abu Dhabi, has finished third here the last two years and is the second choice at 9-1. Schauffele (10-1) finally put together a good finish at his hometown event in San Diego with a tie for second at the Farmers Insurance Open. Rory McIlroy (12/-1) had his own rules controversy Saturday, similar to Reed's but with a lot less fanfare, and finished T-16. McIlroy makes his first appearance in the Phoenix event this week.
Phoenix Open defending champion Webb Simpson (14-1) got hot with the putter at the right time last year, knocking off Finau in a playoff. Daniel Berger has finished 11th or better in four of six appearances here and shares a 20-1 tag with two-time (2016, 2017) winner Hideki Matsuyama.
Several other recent Phoenix Open champions are also in this week's field, including 2019 champ Rickie Fowler (50-1). In fact, Phoenix is the site of Fowler's last worldwide win, and he will try to claw back into the OWGR Top 50 (current ranking: 62). Brooks Koepka (40-1), the 2015 winner, missed his third straight cut, a career long streak, last weekend in San Diego. Gary Woodland (50-1), the 2018 winner, has fought back from some recent injuries and is looking to find his form from the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The Waste Management Phoenix Open, nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Grass" and more recently hashtagged as #ThePeoplesOpen, began in 1932 as the Arizona Open. The tournament alternated between the Phoenix Country Club and the Arizona Country Club until 1975, when the latter took over as host until 1987 when the event was moved to its present home — the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale.
This is historically the best-attended event in golf as the weekly attendance usually exceeds 500,000 spectators. The signature hole is the 16th, nicknamed “The Coliseum,” a par-3 of 162 yards and possesses a party atmosphere as many college students from nearby Arizona State University flock to the course. Poor shots are jeered while good to great shots are met with raucous cheers. It’s almost as if “Happy Gilmore” comes to life here. Due to COVID-19 protocols, spectators will be capped at 5,000 per day this year.
Since 1973, the Phoenix Open has been held on the weekend of the Super Bowl. Many big names have won here, including three-time winners Arnold Palmer (1961, 1962, 1963), Gene Littler (1955, 1959, 1969), Mark Calcavecchia (1989, 1992, 2001) and Phil Mickelson (1996, 2005, 2013). Other legendary names to win here include Byron Nelson (1939, 1945), Ben Hogan (1946, 1947), Jimmy Demaret (1949, 1950), Billy Casper (1957), Jack Nicklaus (1964), Johnny Miller (1974, 1975) and Vijay Singh (1995, 2003).
The tournament scoring record of 256 (-28) is shared by Calcavecchia (2001) and Mickelson (2013). The course record of 60 (-11) is shared by Calcavecchia (2001), Grant Waite (1996) and Mickelson (2005, 2013).
The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale was designed in 1986 by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. It was redesigned in 2014 with the course lengthened and the greens resurfaced, which makes the low scoring of the records listed above fairly obsolete. This Weiskopf design is more difficult than last week’s Torrey Pines North Course. The track plays as a par-71 of 7,266 yards.
TPC Scottsdale is about 1,250 feet above sea level, so the ball will travel a bit longer at altitude, but only around 2%. The fairways and greens are Bermudagrass. The Bermudagrass greens, overseeded with Poa Trivialis and Ryegrass, are relatively fast (12-13 on the stimpmeter). The back nine, particularly the last four holes, is the showcase of this course. The 15th is a reachable par-5 with water lurking on the entire left side. The 16th is the par-3 amphitheater with a 20,000-seat grandstand. The 17th is a driveable par-4 with water and the closing 18th also contains water and deep bunkering.
2020: Webb Simpson (-17/267), 14-1*
2019: Rickie Fowler (-17/267), 22-1
2018: Gary Woodland (-18/266), 50-1**
2017: Hideki Matsuyama (-17/267), 11-1***
2016: Hideki Matsuyama (-14/270), 25-1 ****
2015: Brooks Koepka (-15/269), 40-1
2014: Kevin Stadler (-16/268), 125-1
2013: Phil Mickelson (-28/256), 25-1
2012: Kyle Stanley (-15/269), 66-1
2011: Mark Wilson (-18/266), 80-1*****
2010: Hunter Mahan (-16/268), 66-1
* playoff win over Tony Finau
** playoff win over Chez Reavie
*** playoff win over Webb Simpson
**** playoff win over Rickie Fowler
***** playoff win over Jason Dufner
TRENDS AND ANGLES
Greens in Regulation has been the most important metric in determining a winner in recent years. Here are the rankings for the last six winners and where they ranked in the field in those particular weeks:
2020: Webb Simpson 77.8% (6th)
2019: Rickie Fowler 72.2% (13th)
2018: Gary Woodland 77.8% (4th)
2017: Hideki Matsuyama 80.6% (2nd)
2016: Hideki Matsuyama 77.8% (1st)
2015: Brooks Koepka 75.0% (4th)
For context, here are the 2020-21 PGA Tour season leaders for Greens in Regulation in this week's field:
Matthew NeSmith (2) 76.98%
Stewart Cink (4) 75.60%
Russell Knox (5) 75.56%
Sam Burns (6) 75.23%
Emiliano Grillo (7) 74.86%
Martin Laird (8) 74.80%
Henrik Norlander (13) 74.01%
Aaron Wise (15) 73.84%
Russell Henley (16) 73.81%
James Hahn (17) 73.61%
Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Tee to Green for the tournament have also been indicative of finding winners in the last four years.
2020-21 PGA Tour season leaders for Strokes Gained: Approach
Russell Henley (4) + 1.069
Will Zalatoris (5) + 1.062
Keegan Bradley (6) + 1.053
Bubba Watson (9) + 0.979
Justin Thomas (11) + 0.953
Padraig Harrington (12) + 0.915
Matthew Wolff (13) + 0.910
Matthew NeSmith (16) + 0.796
Russell Knox (17) + 0.777
Chez Reavie (19) + 0.731
2020-21 PGA Tour Season Leaders for Strokes Gained: Tee to Green
Bubba Watson (3) + 2.207
Will Zalatoris (4) + 1.870
Jon Rahm (5) + 1.650
Justin Thomas (6) + 1.631
Xander Schauffele (8) + 1.546
Russell Henley (9) + 1.534
Keegan Bradley (11) + 1.524
Padraig Harrington (14) + 1.395
Sam Burns (15) + 1.373
Rory McIlroy (19) + 1.296
Incoming form has also proved to be a good indicator for success here.
The last six winners of the Phoenix Open have posted a top-5 finish in their last four worldwide starts leading up to the event.
The last 10 winners have posted a top-10 finish in their last four worldwide starts leading up to the event.
Many players in this week's field have Scottsdale/Phoenix or Arizona ties, including the following:
Joel Dahmen (Scottsdale resident)
James Hahn (Scottsdale resident)
Max Homa (Scottsdale resident)
Matt Jones (Scottsdale resident/Arizona State)
Martin Laird (Scottsdale resident)
Nate Lashley (Scottsdale resident/University of Arizona)
Grayson Murray (Arizona State)
Pat Perez (Scottsdale resident/Arizona State)
Andrew Putnam (Phoenix resident)
Jon Rahm (Scottsdale resident/Arizona State)
Rory Sabbatini (University of Arizona)
Kevin Stadler (Scottsdale resident)
Scott Stallings (Scottsdale resident)
Kevin Streelman (Scottsdale resident)
Michael Thompson (Born in Tucson)
Rory McIlroy 10-1
McIlroy makes his first career appearance at TPC Scottsdale. Last week, he had his own rules controversy Saturday, which Reed defenders brought up in a case of "whataboutism." This might give McIlroy a little extra more motivation to get back in the winner's circle.
McIlroy led the field last week at Torrey Pines for Greens in Regulation despite rating 68th in the field for Driving Accuracy. He should also like the Bermudagrass a little better than the Poa Annua at Torrey Pines.
Daniel Berger 23-1
Berger is off to a good start in 2021 with back-to-back top-10 finishes in Hawaii. Now he comes in refreshed from two weeks off to a place where he has very good form.
He has four top-11 finishes in just six appearances here in Scottsdale.
Will Zalatoris 44-1
Zalatoris finished seventh last weekend in his first official start of 2021. In fact, he now has 14 top-10 or better finishes worldwide (Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour) dating to the start of 2020 — the most of any player in the world.
Both the Approach and Tee to Green facets of his game seem to be on point at the moment since he ranks top 5 on the PGA Tour for both categories.
Bubba Watson 52-1
Watson has five top-5 or better finishes in the last nine years at TPC Scottsdale.
The ball striking has been stellar of late as he ranks No. 1 in this week's field for SG: Tee to Green. He showed some good late form in 2020 with back-to-back finishes at Sherwood and Shadow Creek.
Byeong Hun An 90-1
An has two top-10s in four appearances at TPC Scottsdale and was the 54-hole leader here in 2017 before falling back with a 73 on Sunday to finish sixth.
While last week's finish was not great, he was eighth at the American Express in another desert course setting, which he has taken a liking to over the years. New coach Sean Foley seems to have his swing back on the right track.
Martin Laird 150-1
The Scottsdale resident has four top-10s in the last nine years here, but this season he comes in as an OWGR Top 100 player for the first time since 2013, courtesy of his victory last fall at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, another desert layout.
Laird ranks eighth on the PGA Tour for Greens in Regulation.
Matthew NeSmith 250-1
He ranks first in this week's field for Greens in Regulation and eighth for SG: Approach (second last week at Torrey Pines).
He didn’t finish as strong as Laird in the Shriners last fall, but NeSmith did finish eighth on a similar desert layout to what he will see at TPC Scottsdale.
Paul Casey provided a winner in these pages last week at 20-1 with a four-stroke victory at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Casey (25-1 this week) gained an average of 4.22 strokes per round over his four rounds in Dubai. He leads the European Tour in both Strokes Gained: Approach, Strokes Gained: Tee to Green and Stroke Average for the 2021 European Tour season.
The European Tour will conclude its three-week desert swing through the Middle East with arguably its best field of the young season at the Saudi International in Saudi Arabia. OWGR No. 1 Dustin Johnson (5-1) has played this event in both years since its inception in 2019 and won the inaugural event that year and followed his title defense with a runner-up in 2020.
Bryson DeChambeau (8-1) is no stranger to desert golf, having won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in 2019 and having finished sixth here that same year. Tyrrell Hatton (12-1) is tied with Johnson for the most worldwide wins over the last 15 months and already has one this year, having won the season opener in Abu Dhabi.
Patrick Reed (14-1) makes the trip to Saudi Arabia fresh off a five-shot victory at the Farmers Insurance Open, and Tony Finau and Viktor Hovland (both 16-1) follow suit after tying for second at Torrey Pines. Along with last week's victor Casey, Tommy Fleetwood (25-1) is playing his third consecutive week on the Middle East swing, but for the first time in Saudi Arabia. However, he is also no stranger to desert golf with two victories in Abu Dhabi.
Sergio Garcia showed some life last week in Dubai, finishing sixth, the same finishing position as he had last year in this event. Abraham Ancer also finished sixth last year. Robert MacIntyre was in the final pairing with Casey last Sunday in Dubai but ended up settling for third. Garcia, Ancer and MacIntyre are all priced at 30-1. Graeme McDowell, the defending champion, is a 250-1 long shot to repeat.
The Saudi International is only in its third year of existence but has its best field in its short history. The event is held in King Abdullah Economic City, which was established and developed in 2005. The city is located along the Red Sea Coast. This event is never without controversy as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s political and human rights issues have been well-documented. Nevertheless, that has not stopped many of golf’s big names from traveling and scooping up some extra appearance fees.
The Royal Greens Golf & Country Club was built in 2017 and designed by Dave Sampson of Euro Golf Design. The track plays as a par-72 for members but will play as a par-70 this week as the par-5s on the ninth and 13th are converted to par-4s for a 7,010-yard layout. There are 12 par-4s on this track that average only around 420 yards, and four of them measure less than 380 yards.
The course is built around four lakes with some holes playing toward and alongside the Red Sea itself. As well as the water, native desert areas, waste areas and drainage ditches await poor shots. There are several doglegs as well, so the course will demand some strategy. The course uses Royal Paspalum Dynasty grass throughout. Nevertheless, this is a shorter layout, so wind has to be the primary defense and is projected to be at its worst for Thursday's opening round.
2020: Graeme McDowell (-12/268), 80-1
2019: Dustin Johnson (-19/261), 7-1
Viktor Hovland 16-1
Paul Casey proved jetlag was overrated as he traveled from Southern California to Dubai and won last week. Hovland is hoping to do the same off a T-2 last week in San Diego. Last December, he almost accomplished the feat as he won in Mexico and then hopped a flight to finish third in his debut at the European Tour's DP World Tour Championship season finale in Dubai.
Hovland's two PGA Tour wins have both come on Paspalum fairways and greens at the Puerto Rico Open and the Mayakoba Golf Classic in 2020. A victory here would almost assure him a spot on the European Ryder Cup team, which is his main motivation in lieu of the hefty appearance fees that many of the other top-end players are also receiving for making the trip over this week.
Tony Finau 16-1
Another close-but-no-cigar for Finau last week in this column. He finished T-2 last week in San Diego and now has 36 top-10 finishes or better since his lone PGA Tour win at the 2016 Puerto Rico Open.
Of course, that Puerto Rico win was on the Paspalum, just like Royal Greens this week.
Sergio Garcia 30-1
Garcia returns to Saudi Arabia where he finished sixth last year but was also disqualified for purposefully damaging greens in the 2019 event.
He finished sixth last week in Dubai and leads the European Tour for SG: Off the tee and is second for SG: Tee to Green.
Thomas Pieters 58-1
Pieters finished third here last year and has ranked third and first in two appearances here in Saudi Arabia for SG: Tee to Green.
He broke his finger over the Christmas holiday but looks like he is getting back to form.
Alexander Levy 110-1
Levy has always seemed to take a liking to desert golf, which is evidenced by top-10 or better finishes in Abu Dhabi, Oman, Dubai (including a ninth last week) and here in Saudi Arabia, where he finished fifth two years ago.
He ranks a respectable 12th for SG: Tee to Green for his first two starts this season on the European Tour. A pair of top-10s near the end of 2020 in Cyprus and at Leopard Creek in South Africa show that his game is coming around from the COVID-19 layoff and the back problems that plagued him in 2019 to early 2020.
Sean Crocker 180-1
Crocker has gained almost 11 strokes in two of his last three events just on ball striking.
Perhaps a move to the rarely seen Paspalum could be the cure for some recent putting woes.