“The Greatest Show on Grass” goes down starting Thursday at 6:00 am EST – the Waste Management Phoenix Open, at TPC Scottsdale. Drawing over 500,000 fans for the week, it is the biggest and noisiest tournament of the entire PGA season. The amphitheater seating around the par-3 16th fits 20,000 people, there is a concert every night in a tent on the grounds called the Birds’ Nest – this year featuring Kid Rock and Darius Rucker – and enough Arizona State students cheering on a certain Lefty alum to make it seem like a frat party. And there’s a golf tournament.
The tournament is being played at The Stadium Course, at TPC Scottsdale, which has undergone a $12 million renovation since last year, including several changes to the course itself. The changes were designed to make the course more challenging, with newly landscaped desert areas, some greens and tee boxes moved and reshaped, as well as a redesign of the bunkers and cart paths. All of this might mean that we see some depression from the scores we’ve seen in the past – maybe it makes the course record three-time winner Phil Mickelson tied in 2013 forever unassailable.
A par-71 coming in at 7,266 yards, though, there are scoring opportunities on this course, even with all the changes. Typically, the course is going to favor players with good distance and great control off the tee, because if a player is able to stick his drive in the right landing zone, all but a couple of the par 4’s will allow him to fire into the green with a short iron or wedge.
While players do want to make sure they are controlling their drives this weekend, though, the honors might just go to whoever is the most accurate with his approach shots – luckily, they have stats for that. Stats that show this aspect of the course could mean good things for players who are bound to be popular selections already, such as Patrick Reed and Russell Henley, who are near the top in the PGA in short-distance approach shots. As I already mentioned, players could end up with a fair number of short irons into the green for scoring chances, but the course also features four par threes which are the four easiest holes on the course, according to the scorecard handicaps.
Most years in the past the winner finished somewhere in the range of -16 to -19, so maybe now that sticks close to the lower end of the spectrum, but the -28 Phil dropped two years ago shows that if you can stay on your A-game for four straight days, the possibility is always there of an eye-popping number in any given round. The cut line fell at even par after two rounds last year, so players are going to be forced to make shots and avoid blowup holes out of the gate if you want them to be performing for you the entire weekend. Which you do, because on a course that has the capability of giving up this many fantasy points, going into the weekend down a player or two is a death knell. Of course you want to pick guys who have a shot to win, or at least come close, but you REALLY don’t want to go out on a limb for expensive guys with the propensity for an occasional down week, and making room for a stud by relying on a reach who could finish Friday at +1 isn’t much better.
There are a dozen of the world’s top-25 players on hand, as well as a vast array of options in the mid and lower tiers, which can lead to indecision at times. Do I spend here? If I decide to spend over there instead, I’m also going to need to swap out this other guy, etc, etc. It can be neverending, and sometimes it’s easier – but never as effective or fun – when the choices are made for you by salary constraints. This weekend you are going to have to decide for yourself, and when I am faced with a large field and the possibility of a ton of fantasy points, I go for, well, fantasy points. Predicting the winner this weekend is going to be tough, but there are enough chances to make birdie that even a guy who tends to give some of them back will have plenty of chances to keep his score low enough to make it through to the weekend and, most importantly, keep scoring for you. This is a weekend when it will do well to remember that birdie-bogey is worth more than par-par. Good luck.