Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 11, 2021

Meanwhile, In The Desert

While attention was focused on Raymond James Stadium in Tampa last Sunday, on the other side of the continent and a couple hours before the Super Bowl kicked off, another event was drawing to a far more dramatic conclusion. The Waste Management Phoenix Open began life as the Arizona Open in 1932, and after a brief hiatus shortly after, has held a regular spot on the calendar since 1939, making it one of the Tour’s oldest tournaments. For more than thirty years it has been played at TPC Scottsdale, a sprawling layout a few miles northeast of the event’s namesake city.

Like most courses in the Tournament Players Club network, TPC Scottsdale was built with spectators in mind. But the Thunderbirds, the local civic organization that has long served as the tournament’s organizing entity, decided years ago that the natural viewing areas built into the design by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish could be made even better. Additional bleachers eventually morphed into multilevel stadium-like stands, especially at the course’s three finishing holes. The par-3 16th, short par-4 17th, and most recently even the par-4 home hole, have become almost entirely enclosed by these temporary structures.

Yearly attendance far outpaces that of any other Tour stop. In 2018 – after which attendance reporting was discontinued – TPC Scottsdale hosted a record of almost 720,000 fans for the week, with a daily record of more than 216,000 of those spectators wandering the course on Saturday. Early arrivals are quite literally that, lining up at the gates in the middle of the night. For many, their nocturnal journey to the golf course has nothing to do with a love of the sport. Rather their goal is to snag one of the stadium seats, ideally at the 16th hole, where they spend the day imbibing in the desert sun, cheering raucously, and occasionally even noticing whether the object of their passionate shouts was a decent golf shot. In short, the Phoenix Open is essentially a giant party that happens to be held in the vicinity of a golf tournament, making it the perfect complement to the NFL’s equivalent event. No wonder the Tour always schedules its stop in the desert for Super Bowl weekend.

Going into the final round of this year’s tournament, the hearts of many golf fans were aflutter with newfound hope for one of their favorites, a player whose game has seemingly been wandering in the desert for some time. With a third round 10-under par 61, matching his best score ever on Tour, 27-year-old Jordan Spieth claimed a share of the Phoenix Open’s 54-hole lead with Xander Schauffele. Spieth finished without a blemish on his scorecard, and his ten birdies included three in a row from the 15th through the 17th, a closing stretch that turned a very good day into a spectacular one. Forty-two long and often discouraging months after he last lifted a trophy late on a Sunday afternoon, Spieth was 18 holes away from silencing his critics, the most vocal of whom has always seemed to live in his own head.

Spieth turned professional and signed his first two sponsorship deals, including a big one with Under Armour, before his twentieth birthday. But in July 2013, still a couple weeks short of blowing out twenty candles, he began to make those sponsors look like wise investors when he won his first PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic. The victory came in a three-way sudden-death playoff that Spieth elbowed his way into by holing out from a bunker on the tournament’s 72nd hole. By the end of that season Spieth was 10th on the money list and the obvious choice for the Tour’s Rookie of the Year Award.

But it was during 2015 that Spieth’s popularity grew exponentially. He won five times, including a commanding four-shot triumph at the Masters and a thanks-I’ll-take-it one-shot win at the U.S. Open, when Dustin Johnson faltered at the last. In addition, he just missed the playoff at that year’s Open Championship and finished runner-up to Jason Day at the PGA Championship, the season’s final major. It was a run more than adequate to propel Spieth to the top of the world rankings. There were two more victories the following year and three in 2017, the last of which came when Spieth survived a compelling final-round duel with Matt Kuchar at Royal Birkdale to capture the Open, his third major. By then there were legions of Spieth fans, all of whom fully expected the young golfer’s shining career to continue its rocketing climb.

Except that the last victory of 2017 remains the last victory on Spieth’s golfing resume. Not just that, but for much of the past three-plus years he has often seemed unhappy and all but lost on the golf course. Every tournament seems to include at least one inexplicably bad round, with each aspect of his game apparently to blame at one time or another. Spieth arrived in Phoenix having missed four cuts in seven starts since the Tour’s season started in September. That lackluster record made his back-to-back 67s on Thursday and Friday welcome news, and Saturday’s scorching of TPC Scottsdale an unexpected treat. Given the loyalty of his fans, his spot with Schauffele atop the leader board was more than enough to have Spieth’s supporters ready to roar on Sunday.

They would have to do that from home of course, in this pandemic age. Like the Super Bowl, the one key element missing from this year’s Phoenix Open was a massive and, at least in the case of the golf tournament, well-lubricated crowd. Just a handful of spectators were allowed onto TPC Scottsdale’s grounds, and only the 16th hole had anything resembling the familiar stadium appearance. Even that was largely a fundraising effort, with the Thunderbirds offering fans a cardboard cutout likeness in the seats in exchange for a donation.

The strict attendance limits may have been just as well, at least for Spieth’s many fans. His opening bogey foretold the tale of his final round, an indifferent 1-over par 72. With Schauffele playing only marginally better, the door was left open for a host of pursuers. Kyoung-Hoon Lee, Carlos Ortiz, even 53-year-old Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker came bounding up the leader board. But in the end, they were all looking up at Brooks Koepka, who seized control with three straight birdies on 13, 14 and 15, followed by a dramatic chip-in eagle at the 17th.

Like Spieth, Koepka is a multiple major winner who has gone winless for a time, though in his case the reasons have been hip and knee injuries. But for all his talent Koepka has never shown much interest in cultivating fans, so his victory produced only a small flicker of the emotional fire that a win by Spieth would have ignited. Still, the hope of fans is eternal. For Spieth’s followers it’s on to Pebble Beach, where an improbable eagle from the fairway on the par-4 10th hole during Thursday’s opening round instantly renewed their energy. Maybe this is the week their hero returns to glory. Maybe.

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