SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For 18 holes Thursday afternoon, winding from the desert surroundings of the front nine to the trademark stadium set-ups on the back, there was one constant.
When Rory McIlroy stood to address his ball, the iPhone cameras shot up, each claiming a few inches of hard-fought real estate. When McIlroy finished, the iPhone cameras went back in pockets. If fans lingered long enough to watch his playing partners — Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama — they only did so for a brief moment before repositioning themselves for McIlroy’s next shot.
It didn’t matter that McIlroy finished his day 2 over, nor that he was paired with Morikawa, a two-time major champion and one of the best young players in the world. The presence of Matsuyama, the 2016 and 2017 Phoenix Open winner, drew only passing interest, too.
No, on Thursday, the fans were here for McIlroy.
In golf’s post-Tiger era, stardom has been ephemeral. Jordan Spieth’s career has charted a wayward course. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau emerged, retreated and now ply their trade on the LIV Tour. Jon Rahm hasn’t, for whatever reason, captured the zeitgeist in the same way. McIlroy, and only McIlroy, has been the constant. No matter that he hasn’t won a major since 2014. The fans come for McIlroy and they’ll always come for McIlroy.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 9, 2023
Just take the couple that stood beside the fifth green Thursday, waiting for McIlroy’s arrival. When a standard bearer’s sign revealed that all three players’ scores, the wife remarked, “Oh wow, they’re all over par.” To which her husband responded, “It’s still Rory.”
Three holes later, a pair of fans dressed in traditional Scottish golf knickers stood beside the eighth tee. The two friends had flown in from Nebraska and Texas in search of warm weather and a good time. They began their day at the 16th hole, but one of them counts McIlroy among his favorite players. So with his day coming to a close, they positioned themselves by the tee box, regaling him with chants of “Let’s go Rory!”
“Why wouldn’t you be out here and come see some amazing players,” said Brian Schwabauer, the McIlroy fan.
For all the off-course appeal of the Phoenix Open, TPC Scottsdale has only hosted this spectacle once before.
In 2021, with crowds restricted by COVID, McIlroy played here finishing 13th at 13 under. Every other year of his career, he’s skipped the Phoenix Open, often spending the winter portion of his season playing on other continents.
“I wouldn’t say that this is a golf course that sets up terribly well for me,” McIlroy said. “I struggle off the tee here. I feel like all the fairway bunkers are right in my landing zone.”
This year, though, McIlroy had little choice but to play the Phoenix Open. Last fall, the PGA Tour selected the tournament as one of its designated events. The top players can only skip one — and all except last month’s Sentry Tournament of Champions now boast purses of at least $20 million and McIlroy chose to skip the Sentry.
So here he is, ushering in a new era of the Phoenix Open. Technically, the tournament may not keep its elevated status after this year but given its unique appeal, that seems unlikely.
To see the impact on the fan experience, all you had to do Thursday was follow McIlroy for a few holes. Sure, there were the chants. “I love you Rory” was a common refrain. But the proof lay in the marauding flow of the masses.
The fourth green might be TPC Scottsdale’s most remote region. From the top of a hill to its left, the 16th grandstand is visible above the horizon, but only barely. Four holes and a lake stand between No. 4 and the course’s star attractions. But when McIlroy came by, the hill filled up, standing shoulder to shoulder for a glimpse at their hero. And when he left, those fans scurried along, snatching up real estate on the fifth fairway. And so it went for four hours Thursday.
“I think from a fan experience, it’s really good that the top players are showing up,” Xander Schauffele, who finished at 4 under, said. “I’m a fan of golf. Obviously I don’t watch it as much as some people do, but I’d like to see the top players hash it out every week.”
For the players, too, the elevated status brings benefits. Of course, the main one, as McIlroy laughed later, is that “I get a chance to win $3.6 million.” But having to play at an uncomfortable course now — two months before the Masters gets major season underway — has value, too.
“It’s a challenge, and again, I’m trying to embrace that challenge,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, look, not an event I historically play, but I feel like I’m a good enough player to figure it out and contend and win on any golf course.”
A group later, Schauffele offered the opposite experience to McIlroy’s. He plays the Phoenix Open every year and succeeds here, too. In five Phoenix Opens, he has five top-20s and two top-threes. A veteran of the desert landscape.
That perspective was enough to recognize a difference in the set-up this go-around. Thursday’s wind was out of organizers’ control. The “tricky” pin locations — as Schauffele described them — were not.
“I don’t mind,” Schauffele said. “You just don’t expect it coming here.”
Photos: 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale
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