The LIV Golf League might claim to be “golf but louder,” but there is perhaps no place in the sport more raucous than the par-3 16th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, the site of this week’s WM Phoenix Open.
The scene figures to be even more raucous with NFL fans coming to town for Super Bowl LVII on Sunday. This week marks the fourth time the Phoenix metropolitan area has been the site of both the Super Bowl and WM Phoenix Open. It also hosted the doubleheader in 1996, 2008 and 2015.
It figures to be one heck of a party, as usual, at the tournament known as the “Greatest Show on Grass.”
“Very few sporting events in the world can comfortably happen in the same week as the Super Bowl and still have the impact that they have like this one,” said Jon Rahm, an Arizona State graduate, who still lives in the area.
“With that said, I don’t think it’s everybody’s favorite. I think either you love it or hate it. There’s no in between.”
There’s no other atmosphere in golf quite like the 16th hole, “The Coliseum,” which is surrounded by a stadium that seats more than 17,000 fans. Last year, after Sam Ryder aced the hole in the third round, he was showered with what might have been a couple thousand aluminum beer cans and bottles.
Rain delay. 🍺 pic.twitter.com/iTg3ftTOTG
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 12, 2022
It’s also where Harry Higgs and Joel Dahmen famously flashed the crowd and went topless, respectively, after Higgs sank a 10-footer to save par last year.
🚁 @Joel_Dahmen with the helicopter! pic.twitter.com/55iKoJhMWH
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 13, 2022
“I love it,” said Patrick Cantlay, who lost to Scottie Scheffler in a three-hole playoff in his first start in the WM Phoenix Open last year. “I think it’s cool that you can step up there and freeze it in there and make everyone go nuts and make a birdie.”
This week is the first time the WM Phoenix Open is being played as a full-field, elevated event in the PGA Tour’s revamped schedule. With a $20 million purse on the line, including $3.6 million to the winner, will Phoenix fans be a little less rowdy? Probably not. The tournament has replaced aluminum beer cans and bottles with plastic cups, similar to those given away at the Masters, to make it more difficult for beverages to reach the green.
The field includes 22 of the top 25 players in the Official World Golf Ranking and nine of the top 10 players in the FedEx Cup standings.
“I think this was a designated event before we ever knew what they were going to be,” Rahm said. “No matter what the purse is, this tournament is going to be what it is. … Since I came [for] the first time eight years ago — I can’t believe it’s been eight years — it’s gotten exponentially louder and louder. It’s been a significant difference every year.”
Here’s what to watch in professional golf this week:
What’s next on the PGA Tour
Where: Stadium Course, TPC Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Arizona
Purse: $20 million
Three storylines to watch
Rahm vs. McIlroy: Rory McIlroy and Rahm have been arguably the two best players in the world for the past few months, and we’ll finally get to see them square off in the U.S. this weekend. It’s the first time they’ll play in the same PGA Tour event since the CJ Cup in South Carolina in late October, which McIlroy won.
McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, has three wins and seven top-five finishes in his past eight worldwide starts. Rahm, ranked third, has four victories and six top-fives during that same stretch. It will be McIlroy’s second start in the Phoenix Open — he tied for 13th in 2022. Rahm will be making his eighth start in the event and has never finished worse than tied for 16th.
McIlroy and Rahm won’t be playing together, at least not in the first two rounds. McIlroy is paired with Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama in a feature group (9:48 a.m. ET on Thursday and 2:33 p.m. ET on Friday). Rahm is playing with Max Homa and Keegan Bradley (2:33 p.m. ET on Thursday and 9:48 a.m. ET on Friday).
Rahm might have an edge at home.
“It’s always good to stay at home for a tournament even though it’s a little different [with] the dynamics we usually have, being in a hotel or not being in a hotel,” Rahm said. “The best part is just being comfortable. It’s not like I’m overly having to try to learn the golf course or get familiar with the area. It’s a lot easier, a lot less stress to deal with.”
Scheffler’s defense: Scheffler, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, picked up his first PGA Tour victory in the WM Phoenix Open last year. He’ll be the reigning winner in four of the next nine events – he also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Masters last year.
According to data from the PGA Tour, Scheffler’s scoring average of 67.8 is tied with Xander Schauffele for second-lowest among players with at least 10 rounds since the event moved to TPC Scottsdale in 1987. Louis Oosthuizen, who is now playing in the LIV Golf League, has the lowest at 67.58.
Scheffler is attempting to become the event’s first back-to-back winner since Matsuyama in 2016-17.
Schauffele has finished no worse than a tie for 17th in five starts in the WM Phoenix Open, including two straight top-fives. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Schauffele was within 3 shots entering the final round in four of those starts. He lost by a stroke in each of the past two years.
Loaded field: With so much prize money at stake, it’s the deepest field ever for the WM Phoenix Open. There are 24 of the top 30 players in the OWGR in the field (up from 16 in 2022) and 37 of the top 50 (up from 26 last year). The only players in the top 30 who are eligible to compete but aren’t playing are Will Zalatoris, who is slowly coming back from a back injury, Sepp Straka and Ryan Fox.
Three LIV Golf players — Smith (No. 4), Joaquin Niemann (No. 23) and Abraham Ancer (No. 26) — were suspended by the PGA Tour and are ineligible to play.
LIV Golf League announces team names (but not rosters)
The LIV Golf League introduced two new team names and several revamped logos for its upcoming season, including captain Bubba Watson’s new franchise name — RangeGoats GC. The origin of the name probably isn’t what you thought.
Why RangeGoats? pic.twitter.com/vqNAG2JzXj
— rangegoatsgc (@RangeGoatsGC) February 7, 2023
Reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith‘s team, which consists entirely of Australian players, is also changing its name to Ripper GC.
The LIV Golf League’s second season begins in two weeks at Mayakoba in Mexico. The circuit hasn’t yet announced its 48-man roster, which will compete on 12 four-man teams. The league also hasn’t officially announced whether PGA Tour pros Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz are coming aboard, as has been widely speculated for a while.
For your summer reading
Sports gambler Billy Walters’ highly anticipated memoir, “Gambler: Secrets from a Life at Risk,” which was co-written by investigative journalist Armen Keteyian, will be released on Aug. 15. Sources previously told ESPN that Phil Mickelson, who had been linked to Walters in the past, wasn’t overly excited about the book.
In 2017, Walters was convicted of 10 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. Federal prosecutors alleged Walters illegally made $40 million while trading Dean Foods stock from 2008 to 2015. He was released from prison in April 2020 and was granted clemency by former U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2021.
So…the word is finally out. The book I wrote with the GOAT will publish on August 15. Gambling secrets, six years of high-stakes betting with Phil, battle with the Southern District, 31 months in prison wrapped around one helluva inspiring life story. pic.twitter.com/fwMTRN7N6P
— Armen Keteyian (@ArmenKeteyian) February 8, 2023
This was included in publisher Simon & Schuster’s news release about the book on Wednesday: “Although Mickelson was also implicated in the probe, he was never charged — despite agreeing to pay back more than $1 million in trading profits and interest — and he refused to testify at Walters’s trial. In “Gambler”, Walters shares the inside story of his own prosecution and reveals explosive details about his six-year gambling relationship with Mickelson.”
In 2018, Walters told ESPN that Mickelson might have helped his defense if he had agreed to testify during his criminal trial.
“Here is a guy [Mickelson] that all he had to do was come forward and tell the truth,” Walters said. “That was all he had to do. The guy wouldn’t do that because he was concerned about his image. He was concerned about his endorsements.”
On the record
Home sweet home! pic.twitter.com/7hRRnZrkWq
— Justin ROSE (@JustinRose99) February 7, 2023
Former world No. 1 golfer Justin Rose ended a four-year drought without a victory by claiming the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Monday. The win moved him to No. 35 in the world and secured an invitation to the Masters. Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, spoke to ESPN on Tuesday about his long journey back to the top of the leaderboard.
What did it mean to end the drought?
“It means a lot. I think as a player, you always convince yourself or try to trick yourself that, hey, it’s about the journey, the process, it’s about gaining on it and trending, all these buzzwords that we use to try to distract ourselves from the fact you’re not winning. But at the end of the day, you need a result… You need that shot in the arm of confidence and it was big for me. It came at the perfect time of the year to really sort of set up a season and get me back on the front foot.”
When you’ve gone four years without a win, how do you remain confident? How do you tell yourself that you’re trending in the right direction?
“Obviously, I’m sitting here with the benefit of hindsight and saying, ‘Well, yeah, I always knew it was possible,’ but honestly, it’s not easy. You never 100% know what’s going to happen or if you can do it again. I mean you think you can, and you know you can, but is it going to happen? You don’t know. But I think what I’ve learned in this game is that you think you’re this far away and in fact you’re only this far away. You’ll see guys like Jon Rahm and Rory [McIlroy]playing at the level that they’re playing. You think, man, my game’s just kind of here somewhere and these guys are playing like that, but all it takes is a couple good shots, you get some momentum going and suddenly you’re right there.”
You switched irons on the practice range two days before the start of the tournament. Have you ever done that before?
“I do like to tinker. I’m a tinkerer for sure. I always think that my mind’s always going, How can I improve and get better? Normally, I’m messing with something and it’s something in my swing or something like that. But no, I can’t think of a time where I’ve literally made a wholesale change like … . But I had a bit of a Spidey sense, like a hunch that there was something that was going to be easier for me. My other irons were feeling super stiff. The heads were tiny blades. I just went, ‘You know what? This just doesn’t feel as easy as it could be, so let’s try it.'”
You’ve qualified for every major championship since 2010. What does it mean to earn an invitation back to Augusta National Golf Club in April?
“That was a big goal of mine, and obviously, I had this ticking clock. There’s a couple of ways into it obviously, but in my mind, it was like, OK, play my way back into the top 50 in the world rankings by sometime in mid-March. So that’s what I’d focused on and targeted in on and obviously going ahead and winning a tournament is a much more fun way of playing your way into the Masters. I’m glad that that’s now taken care of, taken care of in both ways.”
How important is it for you to be in contention for the Ryder Cup in Rome late this summer?
“I think the Ryder Cup is one of those events that once you’ve tasted it, you never really want to miss another one. It’s a magical week. It can be a heartbreaking week and it can be a tough week on the losing end of things, like it’s brutal, but when you do happen to win it, no better feeling. Celebrating as a team and the whole team locker room environment coming together. Obviously, [as] individual-sport players, we don’t get to experience it that much, but when we do get to experience our locker room mentality, we definitely make the most of it and absolutely love it.
“Not getting picked last time around was a bit of a sucker punch. When you know you’re not playing well yourself is one thing, but when your peers know that you’re not playing well that’s kind of another thing. It was a tough moment, but it was motivation that was needed as well.”
You were asked about the LIV Golf League after winning at Pebble Beach. How serious did you consider jumping to the other circuit?
“I would say serious consideration. It never got to the point where I was like, ‘Do I touch the paper with the pen?’ No. Did I look at it from all angles and did I consider it, and did I see the benefits of it and did I see the upside of it? Yeah, for sure in certain ways, but I could never get past the fact that there was never a critical mass of top players that were going to make the move together to really, in my mind, make it work. There were just unanswered questions around what we’re seeing at the moment, which is the world ranking point side of things, which is obviously [about] access to the majors for me.
“I haven’t won one to have those exemptions for the next five years or whatever it might be for some of the guys that have made that move. I’m relying upon world ranking points to gain entry, and that’s just something I couldn’t give up on. I still want to have that magical moment in my career where I have that chance to win a major and prove to myself that I can do it again a decade later. And that’s something that I wasn’t ready to walk away from just yet.”
Tom Kim to win (8-1), Top-5 (6-1)
Marks: The young 20-year-old Tom Kim already has two PGA Tour wins to his name, one of which was in Las Vegas, with similar desert conditions to TPC Scottsdale. You can see him playing to the crowd and loving every minute of it. He finished sixth at the American Express and is first in shots gained total from 150 to 175 yards, which helps at this event.
Rickie Fowler top-10 (+450)
Marks: Don’t look now, but Fowler has the look of getting his game back, we think. He has made the cut in five of six events this season, including a runner-up finish at the ZoZo Championship and T-11th at Torrey Pines. Now he’s at one of his favorite tournaments, where he won back in 2019 and was runner up in 2016.
Collin Morikawa to win (25-1)
Bearman: There are many guys you could go with who always play well at TPC Scottsdale, such as Jon Rahm (8-1), Xander Schauffele (14-1) or last year’s winner, Scottie Scheffler (14-1). But none of them offer the value you are getting in Morikawa (25-1), who led the field in shots gained: tee-to-green here in 2020, but couldn’t make a putt in falling to T-25th. The 25-year-old, two-time major champion has finished no worse than 6th in his last three events on Tour, bouncing back from blowing a huge lead in Hawaii with a third place finish at Torrey Pines. He’s third on Tour tee-to-green, fifth on approach and has shown improvement with the flat stick. His ball-striking makes him a perfect fit for TPC Scottsdale and, if he hits a few putts, could notch another win.
Xander Schauffele +170 top-10, -125 top-20
Bearman: There was a time last year where we called Schauffle the “human ATM” as he put together a string of eight consecutive top-20 finishes, including three wins. Since that streak ended in Memphis last year, he has six more top-20s with one W/D in there due to an injury. Now back and healthy, Schauffele plays a TPC course he has had great success in with no finish worse than 17th in his last five visits. He’s third in shots gained total and 7th tee-to-green. He’s 33-under par here the last two years, finishing second and third.