SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Conducting the final act of his Friday masterpiece, Jon Rahm stood in a bunker beneath the ninth green. From his predicament, Rahm was short-sided, needing to float a shot with just enough touch to give himself a makeable par putt. Eight feet would have been good. Five feet would have been great. Instead, Rahm rolled the ball to 15 inches. When he tapped in, he raised his putter to a hollering crowd, drawing the type of cheers that come when you enter the weekend at 8 under.
Conducting the final act of his Friday masterpiece, Scottie Scheffler looked down over that same green, two groups and 30 minutes later. From his perch on the right side of the fairway, he had 160 yards to the hole. No problem. Scheffler stopped his ball on a dime, three feet short of the hole. From there, his seventh birdie of a bogey-free day was a formality. His weekend will be begin at 10 under.
Such was the story of Friday afternoon at TPC Scottsdale.
For 18 holes, Rahm did everything he could to separate himself from the WM Phoenix Open’s expected contenders. Afterward, he openly admitted, “I played really good.”
And he did. But Scheffler was better. During one stretch in the middle of his round, Rahm played nine holes at 6 under. It should have been enough to build some cushion. Instead, there Scheffler was, birdying four straight.
“We have 18 of the top 20 players in the world (in the field),” Rahm said. “You can expect a few of us to be doing that.”
So now, entering the weekend, Scheffler (10 under) and Rahm (8 under) sit atop the leaderboard. Their betting odds are +175 and +300 to win. Only Xander Schauffele is closer than +1400.
A repeat of last year, when the then-unknown Sahith Theegala came out of obscurity to take the 54-hole lead, seems improbable. Yes, Scheffler emerged in the end for this first PGA Tour win, but he did so amid a crowded and murky leaderboard. This year is set up for a two-man battle. Mano a mano.
“That would be a lot of fun,” Scheffler said. “It looks like right now we’re 1 and 2 but we’ll see how things shake out.”
That it happens to be between two of the best players in the world is no accident. The Phoenix Open is one of 17 designated events in the PGA Tour’s new schedule. The top 20 players on tour must play in all but one of those events.
T1 at 8-under
Scottie Scheffler is dialed in. pic.twitter.com/APaXYBuG8F
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 10, 2023
So for 17 weeks, the top players will descend on one place. They’ll produce stretches like midday Friday, when Rahm (the world No. 3) birdied holes 2 and 3 right as Scheffler (the world No. 2) stuck a pair of irons to six feet for birdies on holes 1 and 2. In the tightest section of TPC Scottsdale’s front nine, the crowd roars were almost close enough to be confused for one another.
Whichever golfer lifts the trophy come Sunday night, it won’t be a tour win relegated to the recesses of memory. This one, because of this competition, will mean something.
On Friday, the talk of Rahm’s news conference was the battle for the crown of world’s best player. For his part, Rahm said, “I don’t get too much in that discussion.”
But even he acknowledged that, this year, that label could mean more.
“If somebody, hopefully me, gets a chance to get that No. 1 and keep it throughout this whole year, with all these big elevated events, where we’re going to have the most amount of points for this many events in a row it will be … one to be really proud of,” Rahm said. “Just because we never had this many fields this strong that we’re going to have in a row. So if somebody can get up there and keep it it’s because they have played really good golf and they truly are a well-deserved No. 1.”
That’s because of events like these. Because of weekends like this one. Because of battles like Scheffler vs. Rahm.
Photos: 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale
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