We’re approaching one year since spectators filled the grandstands at a PGA Tour tournament and lined the ropes. Silence and open spaces almost feel normal now in some strange way. For me anyway, it’s reached a point where replays from the days of galleries jar my senses. Once there were roars and high fives and celebrations. Now, we’ve grown accustomed to gentle head nods and random claps.
Nowhere will the absence of fans be more noticeable than this week’s Waste Management Open at TPC Scottsdale, the Tour’s standard bearer for people and parties, hundreds of thousands of revelers and rowdies piling into a vast swath of desert eager for a.m. cocktails and aces anytime on the incomparable 16th.
The stadium surrounding golf’s loudest par-3 is in place this week but the scene will be somewhat serene. A couple thousand fortunate fans will wander about the 192-acre, par-71, 7,261-yard course. And though the champion won’t receive raucous recognition from a massive crowd late Sunday just before the Super Bowl, the $1.35 million check from the $7.5 million purse will still deposit in any account.
The lack of fans could help some of the Tour’s less experienced players. As has been said before in this space, people make people nervous. Especially when there are thousands, abuzz, watching and waiting to recognize success and disaster in the waning moments of a tournament. TPC Scottsdale offers plenty of opportunities for both in its closing stretch and empty skyboxes simply won’t produce the same atmosphere.
Keeping your ball out of the water and away from the cacti is imperative this week off the tee. The fairways are slightly more difficult to find than usual but from there the greens are slightly easier (66.8 percent) to locate than at the average Tour event (65.6). We’ve rewarded players with a strong track record at TPC Scottsdale and SG: Off-the-Tee, Ballstriking or Approach were also high on the model. Good performances at the other desert stops in La Quinta or Las Vegas also carried weight.
The dry desert air, Bermuda grass greens and overseeded fairways couldn’t be more different than what the players faced last week on the coast of California. The average drive travels about 12 yards farther at TPC Scottsdale due to the altitude and lack of humidity. Don’t stray too far from the top 20 in the world in trying to identify a winner.
As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
25. Martin Laird – Won in the Las Vegas desert late last fall and has flourished at TPC Scottsdale through his career, racking up four top 10s since 2011 and making the cut seven consecutive times.
24. Matthew NeSmith – Typically strong in the desert, uncharacteristic poor iron play cut his tournament short in La Quinta two weeks ago. Rebounded to gain 6.6 strokes on approach last week and 7.1 tee-to-green in 48th-place finish. Strong sleeper this week in his Scottsdale debut.
23. Russell Knox – Top 20 here each of the last two years and 22nd in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 12 rounds. Don’t worry about last week’s missed cut. Torrey Pines is not a great course for the medium-length hitter.
22. Michael Thompson – Like his combination of 42nd in SG: Approach and second in SG: Putting over the last 12 rounds. Probably lacks the requisite length to contend – although the altitude bump helps – but still expect a solid four rounds at good value.
21. Aaron Wise – Making only his second trip to TPC Scottsdale (MC last year). Poor putting ruined his week at the American Express but those were also his first competitive rounds in six weeks. With the rust chipped away, expect him to return to the form he showed late last year (runner-up at Mayakoba).
20. Byeong Hun An – With four top 25s in as many Waste Management appearances, he’s an automatic selection here and his top 10 two weeks ago in the desert should create good vibes this week. The putter is the nemesis of course (-3.9 SG on average over last five tournaments).
19. Luke List – Finished 10th last week despite losing 3.6 strokes on the greens. His iron game has been sharp – gained 4.5 strokes on approach at AMEX and 3.4 last week. Obviously one of the worst putters on the PGA Tour year in and year out, but has a T-25 and T-26 on his Waste Management resume.
18. Harris English – Refusing to overreact to his missed cut last week. Torrey Pines posed an entirely different test – grasses, Friday weather, etc. Focusing instead on his remarkable consistency over the last 15 months and that he’s gained an average of 1.5 strokes off the tee in the last five tournaments, which should lead to many birdie putts.
17. Henrik Norlander – Coming off a career best runner-up at the Farmers and a solid 12th in similar conditions at the American Express. Making his first start at TPC Scottsdale and see no reason not to continue riding his strong ballstriking. Fortunate to have veteran caddie Tim Thalmueller – who worked for Tom Watson in the 1980s – on his bag.
16. Sam Burns – A rough Sunday (75) at Torrey Pines aside, Burns is sixth in the field in SG: Ballstriking over the last 12 rounds and second in SG: Off-the-Tee. Bermuda is easily his favorite putting surface and has gained strokes on the greens in five of the last six tournaments.
15. Bubba Watson – Looking fresh in his new Linksoul gear, Bubba proved that Torrey Pines does not favor a pro returning from a 10-week break. He should be much more comfortable this week in a tournament where he’s finished top 5 in four of the last seven years. He’s averaged 6.7 strokes gained OTT over the last five events and his short game is trending upward.
14. Hideki Matsuyama – Can’t overlook him at Scottsdale. From 2015-18 he put together one of the best four-year stretches in any event in the history of the PGA Tour, winning twice and finishing second and fourth. Finds a way to make putts here when he can’t anywhere else.
13. Chris Kirk – Two years ago in his most recent Waste Management appearance led the field in SG: Approach. Over the last 12 rounds, he’s in the top 40 in the field in every significant strokes gained category. T-11 in 2018 is his best finish here in nine starts.
12. Sungjae Im – Sloppy short game and two errant tee shots at PGA West kept him from maximizing his performance the last two weeks. Finished T-7 here two years ago and his strong driving and iron play are always an asset.
11. Rickie Fowler – The offseason swing tweaks are working. After gaining 8.9 strokes Tee-to-Green at the AMEX he backed it up with 4.9 SG on the demanding Torrey Pines layout last week. As so often happens when a pro is focusing on the long game, his typically reliable putting has suffered. No better place to regain his touch than TPC Scottsdale, site of his last Tour win (‘19) and two other top 5s since 2016.
10. Corey Conners – Another victim of a long layoff last week, I continue to be impressed by the improvement in his short game and putting. T-45 in his first WMO appearance last year. He’s second in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green and 29th in SG: Around-the-Green over the last 12 rounds.
9. Will Zalatoris – Breaking news: Zalatoris is a star. All he does is play well every time he shows up. I wasn’t sure how he’d fare last week in his first trip to Torrey after a lengthy layoff, but when you hit the center of the clubface every time, time doesn’t matter.
8. Adam Long – Won in the desert at AMEX a couple years ago and finished eighth at WMO last year. Iron game was abnormally erratic in this year’s AMEX but write it off as one poor week.
7. Ryan Palmer – He’s 20th in the field in SG: Approach and eighth in SG: Putting over the last 12 rounds, rolling into Scottsdale on the strength of his third top 5 in four starts. Finished in the top 5 at the WMO in 2013 and 2015.
6. Gary Woodland - Finally healthy again after dealing with a hip injury last year, Woodland showed signs last week at Torrey Pines and more important, the week before in similar conditions in La Quinta. Won the WMO in 2018 and finished T-7 in 2019.
5. Webb Simpson – The defending champion was lights out on the greens at the Sony (nine strokes gained) to rack up yet another top-5 finish. He’s 73rd in field in SG: Off-the-Tee and 46th in SG: Approach over the last 12 rounds.
4. Xander Schauffele – Finally snapped his Torrey Pines jinx with yet another runner-up finish thanks to a splendid closing 69. Has three consecutive top 20s at the WMO and his game is so solid and consistent, it’s surprising when he doesn’t appear on a Sunday leaderboard.
3. Jon Rahm – When you’re as talented as Rahm, you can look uncomfortable with your swing and still gain 4.9 strokes Tee-to-Green and post a fourth consecutive top-7 finish as he did at Torrey Pines last week. He’s 55 under in five WMO appearances, landing between fifth and 16th in each start. The handful of ASU fans should offer support.
2. Justin Thomas – A rare missed cut the last time we saw him in Abu Dhabi though his career record reveals he’s usually in contention when he plays again. Finished third here the last two years and he’s an easy play anywhere and especially where iron play is at a premium.
1. Daniel Berger – Has finished in the top 11 three of the last four years at TPC Scottsdale. Gained 4.8 strokes Tee-to-Green at Sony and 4.7 at Kapalua in finishing top 10 in both tournaments. Possesses the mental toughness to handle a demanding stretch of finishing holes late on a Sunday.