Tournament: Waste Management Phoenix Open, February 4-7
Course: TPC Scottsdale (Stadium), 7,266 yards, par 71.
Defending Champion: Brooks Koepka, of FSU tutelage, won with a finishing 66. An eagle on 15 helped, and he held off hard-charging Bubba Watson (who couldn't make a putt coming in).
Television: Thursday-Friday, 3-7 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1-3 p.m. (GC), 3-6 p.m. (NBC).
Fun Fact: The players throw swag to the attendees in the stands that line the par 3 16th hole. Corporate sponsors help, but its unique in that its during the round itself.
Former 'Dawgs in the Field (Nine): Erik Compton, Harris English, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk, Kevin Kisner, Hudson Swafford, Brendon Todd, Bubba Watson
After a few weeks in Hawaii and then California, the Tour moves eastward to the Phoenix, Arizona area. There are several unique tournaments in golf, and for a variety of reasons: the heritage and course rotation of the Open Championship; the prestige, landscaping and second nine charges of The Masters; the brutal test of the US Open; the famous island green of the Players Championship. But this tournament is unique in its proximity and catering to the fans in attendance. Around 400,000 people come through the gates over the 6 days (including practice rounds), and around 100,000 attend on Saturday alone. This indeed sets records and no tournament in the world comes close.
Additionally, the par 3 16th is completely surrounded by stands, luxury boxes, and stands. It can hold around 20,000 on this shortest of holes, and players walk to the tee box through a tunnel. But here's the thing... its LOUD. The local ASU contingent along with plenty of inebriated spectators have forced the players to abandon the usual silence and stoicism associated with the gentlemen's game, and are bombarded with catcalls, badgering, and singing of your alma mater (or "Happy Birthday" if it happens to occur close to tourney time). They pass out cheat sheets to other patrons with obscure facts - essentially ammunition with which to talk trash.
The course itself is pretty solid, and fairly typical of a TPC layout. They put in a major renovation 2 years ago and changed the green complexes and bunkering in order to protect par 5s and short par 4s from the ever-increasing length of the modern day golfer. But it's still set up for risk/reward, especially the last 6 holes. Being in the desert, the unnaturally green grass provides medium to wide fairway targets and medium speed greens. With man-made ponds and water features, waterfowl abound in this misplaced oasis, especially coots. You'll see them dotting the water, and sometimes migrating over the fairways while golfers play right through them.
It's a pretty strong field, as this is a popular spot and most of the top pros are beginning their seasons in earnest. Nine of the world's top 25 are playing, including #4 Rickie Fowler and #5 Bubba Watson. Phil Mickelson has won this event three times in the past, and there are 8 golfers entered who have already won in this wrap-around season. And while all that is fine and good, here's who played for UGA and thus who you're rooting for:
Erik Compton, #241 Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). He stopped the bleeding by making his first 2016 cut last week, but still fell 4 spots in the 2 year cumulative ranking. He needs a repeat this week.
Harris English, #103 OWGR. English actually moved up two spots from last week after a tie for 31st. He's a very solid golfer all around, but really nothing is working for him of late. He's made $187k, but only 1 top 25.
Brian Harman, #94 OWGR. Brian was 92nd last week, and was tied for 14th going into the weekend. The weather got to him and he fell to the bottom, and subsequently lost ground in the rankings. But he's made 6 of his last 7 cuts including 3 top 15s. Really is playing the 3rd best of the UGA alums, behind Kisner and Bubba. Left-handers do well at this tourney, so maybe that's an omen for this southpaw.
Russell Henley, #47 OWGR. He's only played 5 times this season, but has 2 top 10s and almost $400k in winnings. He typically plays well early in the season, but I don't look for much this week.
Chris Kirk, #51 OWGR. Kirk has played as steady as anyone over the last 15 months, but suffered a broken hand last summer and is trying to get back to form. He missed the cut in his last start, but shot 65 in the 2nd round to give glimpses of his talent.
Kevin Kisner, #16 OWGR. Only last April, Kisner was not qualified for the Masters and was 230+ in the world. A win, 4 runners-up, plenty of top finishes and a couple million dollars later, Kevin has cemented his reputation as unflappable and scared of no one. His driving has improved quite a bit, and if his putter gets hot, watch out. I'm expecting a top 25 this week, and scaring the top of the leaderboard.
Hudson Swafford, #215 OWGR. Swafford seems to have found his game and has moved up 54 spots in the rankings since New Years. His #32 ranking in the FedEx Cup reflects this recent success, and a tie for 13th last week in horrible conditions is really moving him in the right direction. I'll repeat my comments from last week: keep making cuts and he'll steadily climb the ranks.
Bubba Watson, #5 OWGR. Within the last 12 months, Bubba was ranked as high as #2 in the world. He's played 12 official Tour events between last season and this, and his results include 2 wins, three 2nds, two 3rds, and eleven top 10s. If you're in the top 10 in half the tourneys you play, you'll do well. So why did he fall? Four words: Rory, Day, Spieth, and Rickie. All four have multiple wins, and even more success than Bubba. So he's playing his best golf ever, but happens to coincide with the most significant young golf movement that the tour has ever seen. No worries, as he placed 2nd here last year and has another runner-up in this tourney to his credit. He's a former resident of Scottsdale (right next door) and I expect a very high finish this week.
Brendon Todd, #88 OWGR. Almost polar opposite to Bubba is Todd. He has missed the cut in 5 of his last 6, and the one made cut was a 3rd round cut (counts as a made cut, but gets no money as he did not play the final round). Something is amiss here, as he's a Tour winner and too good to be playing this bad. I'll try to research and see if he has a nagging injury or something else holding him back.
Since the Super Bowl is Sunday, the tournament finish plays 2nd fiddle to just about everything else. But it's still a solid Tour stop, and certainly unique as I stated above. NBC has the coverage, and personally Johnny Miller is as pleasant to hear analyze as Bret Bielema at a presser. There's good golf out there, 9 former Dawgs in the field, and plenty to watch and root for. So while you make your 18,000 calorie taco salad appetizer and ponder how Kirby Smart will put this #Squad16 together to get out of the SEC bottom-dwelling, tune in to see our alums spoil a good walk. And....