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WM Phoenix Open’s recent stellar run of champions and why it may continue

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When Scottie Scheffler outlasted Patrick Cantlay in a sudden-death playoff to win last year’s WM Phoenix Open, he earned his first PGA Tour title.

In short order, he vaulted to World No. 1 thanks to a run of four wins in six Tour starts, capped off by the Masters. In doing so, Scheffler kept the streak alive of marquee names winning at TPC Scottsdale.

Since Brooks Koepka, who was such a no-name at the time that the first tee starter called him Bruce Cupcake, earned his maiden Tour title in 2015, the list of winners is stout:

Masters champ Hideki Matsuyama twice (2016, ’17)
U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland (2018)
Players champ Rickie Fowler (2019)
U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson (2020)
Koepka again (2021), who went on to win four majors

It reads like a future Hall of Fame roll call and is a refreshing change of pace from — no offense — the Mark Wilsons (2011), Kyle Stanleys (2012) and Kevin Stadlers (2014) of the world, which for many years tended to hoist the trophy at TPC Scottsdale.

So what qualities stand out among the winners of the WM Phoenix Open? For a time, TPC Scottsdale was tagged as a bomber’s paradise, where it favored players able to blast it over the trouble. Length trumped accuracy.

“Some of the guys dove deep into the stats and discovered you don’t have to swing for the fences every hole. All you have to do is get it in the fairway and give yourself more opportunities because the par 5s are reachable and 17 is drivable,” said Davis Love III. “Some of these guys have figured out a way to pick apart that course.”

Tony Finau hits out of a bunker on the 18th during the playoff at the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

Tony Finau, who lost in a playoff here in 2020, offered a different theory on why the cream tends to rise to the top at TPC Scottsdale.

“The greens are fast so you have to be a good putter and the best putters in the world putt well on fast greens,” he said. “When nerves are high, the guys who are good chippers and putters are the ones who are going to win tournaments.”

That may help explain why Phil Mickelson, who combined length and the cat-like skills of a burglar to escape trouble, won three times (1996, 2005, 2013) and finished second in 2008. But the Tour’s annual trip to the Valley of the Sun has been won by preeminent putters such as Aaron Baddeley (2007) and Fowler, short hitters like Wilson (2011) and Simpson, ball-striking extraordinaire’s Hunter Mahan (2010) and Matsuyama and bombers such as J.B. Holmes (2006 and ’08) and Woodland.

“There’s nothing to hide in your game. You have to do it all,” said Woodland. “You have to drive it well, for sure, but it doesn’t favor a long or short guy. It favors a guy who is hitting it really well.”

Gary Woodland watches his shot on the par-3 16th hole at the 2021 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: USA TODAY Sports)

If there is one common thread among the recent run of star power finding the winner’s circle at the WM, it may simply be golfers that can handle the amped up crowds and the pressure that rivals a major. In addition to success in golf’s biggest tournaments, all of the recent winners have competed on golf’s other biggest stages at either or both of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup international team competitions.

“There’s nothing in golf that compares to what that atmosphere is,” Fowler said of the WM Phoenix Open.

Xander Schauffele, who is ranked No. 6 in the world, echoed the sentiment that the largest and most unruly crowds in golf are a factor, and the pressure mounts on the closing stretch from Nos. 15-18.

“I think there are just a lot of shots that need to be pulled off,” Schauffele said “and a lot of the difficult shots or pressure shots are coming down the stretch. That’s probably why the leaderboard always looks the way it does.”

Schauffele’s usually in the mix, recording top-20 finishes in all five of his previous appearances, including T-2 and T-3 in his last two starts. After several close calls could Schauffele be the next marquee name to keep the streak of big-game hunters as winners alive?

“I’ve been knocking on that door for quite some time, and I am ready to break that door down,” he said. “But I’m going to stay patient.  I’m just going to hang tight, keep showing up to that tournament, keep giving myself a chance.”

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