And now for something completely different. (You didn’t think I’d let NSD get in the way of our pro golf coverage, did you?)
Tournament: Waste Management Phoenix Open, February 2-5
Course: TPC Scottsdale (Stadium), 7,266 yards, par 71.
Defending Champion: Hideki Matsuyama. The Man from Japan was down 2 strokes to Rickie Fowler in the final round, but the Puma-pusher in high tops (seriously) got wet on 17 and a 4 hole playoff ensued. Another Fowler shot found the drink and Matsuyama emerged with his first PGA Tour title.
Television: Thursday-Friday, 3-7 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m. (GC), 3-6 p.m. (CBS)
Fun Fact: Former Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson is a former area resident, and seems to have come out of his shell:
Former 'Dawgs in the Field (Five): Harris English, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk, 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. And they sell beer. Lots and lots of beer.
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 Arizona State 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.
If you’re a player who doesn’t go in for this sort of thing, prepare to be booed. And harshly. By 20,000 people who really don’t care. But if you embrace the crazy atmosphere, you can engage the crowd. I present Exhibit A from a few years ago:
Even the caddies know that the crowds demand entertainment:
The course itself is pretty solid, and fairly typical of a TPC layout. They put in a major renovation 3 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. 11 of the world's top 25 are playing, including #6Jordan Spieth and #5 Hideki Matsuyama. Phil Mickelson has won this event three times in the past and has played it every year since 1991 and 28 times overall (he attended nearby ASU). And while all that is fine and good, here's who played for UGA and thus who you're rooting for:
Harris English (53 FedEx, 79 Official World Golf Ranking). He’s only played 6 events this season and missed the cut in half. But the other half are T35, T14, and T4. Last year at this time, he was outside the top 100 in the world. He finished top 5 here last year, and a repeat this year moves him near top 50 and thus entry into all the events.
Russell Henley (49, 135). So far this season, he’s made 4 of 6 cuts, and all of those are top 25s. Steady, but he’s falling in the rankings. He was #47 OWGR last year, so 90 spots lower on the list isn’t something to shout about. He’s won twice on Tour, so he definitely has the game.
Brian Harman (19, 102). Very steady so far in 2016-17, but hasn’t captured that elusive 2nd Tour title. His last three tournaments resulted in T20, T3, and T9 last week.
Chris Kirk (25, 80). Maybe the best ball-striker out of all the former Bulldogs, Kirk was a solid top 50 player until a late 2015 broken wrist. He’s come back in fine fashion, as he has three top 10s this season.
Bubba Watson (144, 12). Yep, he’s 144th in the FedEx Cup race which measures success in the current season. Heck, he’s only played twice. But he’s #12 in the world, which is a running 2 year measuring stick. Last season, he made 18 of 19 cuts and half of those were top 25 finishes including a win. He tied for 14th here last year, and was 2nd in 2015.
Last year, nine (count ‘em 9) former Bulldogs were entered, but since that time, Brendon Todd and Erik Compton have lost their Tour privileges, Hudson Swafford is resting on a big pile of cash, and Kevin Kisner is just taking a break (missed cut in 2016). Sure there is a certain pro football game being played Sunday night, but if you want to get in on some of that action in the desert, flip the TV on over to the golf and let’s root on some Bulldogs. And as always...