Dubbed “The Greenest Show on Grass,” the 2021 Waste Management Phoenix Open put on quite the show this week to say the least. While the fan attendance was limited to 5,000 per day, only a fraction of the 216,818 who attended the tournament on the Saturday in 2018, there was an electricity on the weekend that has been missing from the PGA Tour since the first round of the 2020 Players Championship – the last round played before the shutdown. Since the shutdown, the Bermuda Championship back in November was the first event open to the general public, followed by the Vivint Houston Open with a daily 2,000-person maximum. The last seven events have all been held without spectators (the Sentry Tournament of Champions allowed 500 fans in a special open-air area, but no fans were permitted on the course).
The soon-to-be-54-year-old and this year’s Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker added the excitement to the first two rounds of the event. With rounds of 65 and 66, Stricker held the lead Friday until Xander Schauffele made a late flurry of birdies and an eagle to take a one-shot lead at the tournament’s midway point. For Stricker, now a 5-time winner on the PGA Tour Champions, this event marks his playing in 4 of the last 5 PGA Tour events for which he was eligible, including the last three consecutively-held events.
The postponement of the 2020 Ryder Cup due to Covid-19 has spurred this busy schedule which will enable Stricker to build chemistry with those he will captaining this fall. Also, Stricker will be faced with the delicate task of selecting six captain’s picks to round off his twelve-man team. Keegan Bradley and James Hahn, who, at different times, both held the lead over the weekend while paired with Stricker, will likely need one of those picks. Who knows how much these interactions will factor into the American captain’s decision as the season progresses.
While Stricker’s third round saw him miss only one green in regulation, his putter, which, throughout his career, has consistently been his expertise, failed to convert birdies; and, even though he finished the tournament just two back, the focus of the event shifted to a number of the tour’s high-profile players seeking to reenter the winner’s circle.
Jordan Spieth, former World No. 1, entered the week as the 92nd-best player in the world and having missed the cut at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open. Three-and-a-half years removed from his last victory at the 2017 British Open, Spieth’s struggles off the tee and with his putter has led to his missing cuts at five of his last eight starts prior to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Spieth has always resonated well with fans, and many were waiting for him to return to form. On Saturday, Spieth came through.
Jumpstarting his round with a 2-putt birdie at the par-5 3rd, he went on to card 10 birdies in route to a 61. While Spieth’s inaccuracy off the tee persisted during the round, hitting only 6 of 14 fairways (42.9%), he reignited what was perhaps his greatest strength: the ability to simply get the ball in the hole and score. On multiple occasions, Spieth recovered after being out of position. After taking relief from the cart path on the par-4 sixth, from a sandy, pebbly lie and with a flag obscured by Palo Verde trees, he stuck his approach shot to three feet.
Later, Spieth found himself in the desert landscape left of the fairway on 10 from which he skillfully mustered a shot to greenside. From there, he holed a 68-foot chip for his fifth birdie of the day. Then, on 16 and 17, Spieth drained two thirty-foot birdie putts, feeding off the crowds that, in the tradition of the tournament, were most densely populated at those holes.
Spieth also managed to get a little luck back on his side. After a fortuitous bounce on the 13th that left him 6 feet for an eagle 3, the Texan, paired with Billy Horschel, observed, “I’m hitting the same shots as [Billy], but he’s getting screwed and I’m getting lucky.”
“I’m hitting the same shots as [Billy], but he’s getting screwed and I’m getting lucky.” - Jordan Spieth
Meanwhile, Schauffele, who started the day four ahead of Spieth, had no plans of falling behind. Playing roughly a hole behind Spieth’s group, Schauffele fell out of the lead when Jordan birdied 13, but then made four birdies of his own in five holes before letting an 8-foot birdie putt slip by on 18 to finish tied with Spieth at 18-under and three shots clear of the rest of the field.
For Schauffele, it was his fourth 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour compared to seventeen for Spieth. Also, while Schauffele has certainly been one of the most if not the most consistent player on the tour as of late, finishing in the top 25 in 22 of his last 24 starts, he too was seeking an overdue victory, with his last being the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions.
However, what looked like what would be a two-horse race on Sunday evolved into an ever-shifting and congested leaderboard by the back nine as the leaders faltered. Spieth began his round by flaring his drive well right up against a path of prickly pears; he did well to make bogey. Despite hitting just 5 fairways including two that found the water, he commented that “swing-wise, it felt the same as the last couple days.” What truly was disappointing for both Spieth and Schauffele was their struggles on the greens. For most of their respective rounds, the two 27-year-olds seemed tentative, consistently hitting putts short. Moreover, Spieth’s three-putt bogey on the 7th, missing what should have been a tap in, set the tone for the pairing.
James Hahn made a charge up the leaderboard amidst Spieth and Schauffele’s struggles. Starting the day five back, Hahn briefly took a three-shot lead after a birdie at the 10th. However, on 11, after being out of position off the tee and a subpar pitch, he failed to save par on the toughest hole on the course. Next, an adventurous bogey on 13, which is akin to a double with the 13th playing as the easiest hole on the course, saw him fall back into a share of the lead with Schauffele.
At the same time, another familiar name in Brooks Koepka was rising up the leaderboard. Koepka closed his third round with five birdies in his last 6 holes to prime him for a late Sunday push. Paired with Hahn, his two-putt birdie grabbed a two-shot swing on the 13th. After stiffing his second from 166 yards to five feet on 14, a birdie got him to 16-under par and within one shot of the lead.
The two risk-reward finishing holes, namely 15 and 17, would then prove pivotal in determining the champion. On 15, Hahn’s troubles continued when he hooked his second to the par 5 into the water. Almost on cue with NBC's Paul Azinger, who remarked that “that ball in the water was like throwing red meat to a lion for Brooks Koepka,” Koepka’s second never left the flag, setting him up for an eagle bid which ultimately led to another birdie. Finally, on 17, where Hahn, Spieth, and Schauffele were a collective 2-over in the final round, Koepka chipped in for eagle and captured a two-shot lead which he would not surrender.
“That ball in the water was like throwing red meat to a lion for Brooks Koepka.” - Paul Azinger
Like both Spieth and Schaufelle, Koepka was winless in 2020. Furthermore, his last three PGA Tour outings resulted in missed cuts. Afflicted by a re-injured knee, Koepka was forced to skip last year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, and his rehab stirred self-doubt: “It’s been very humbling … I’ve had some real dark moments … dozens of dark places mentally … I didn’t know if I was ever going to be the same again.” This win did away with these concerns.
Perhaps, more than anything else, the fans were what ultimately propelled Koepka on Sunday. Like Rory McIlroy, Koepka has been open about the lack of competitiveness in the absence of the galleries. During the week, he commented that “every time I played well it’s been in front of fans. I struggle with no fans. I can’t get the energy.”
Regardless of who you are, the fans amplify the excitement on the PGA Tour. The Phoenix Waste Management Open showcased this, and with Koepka and Spieth back in the mix, the game will be better for it.