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Waste Management Phoenix Open preview

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“The Greatest Show on Grass” or the Waste Management Phoenix Open as it’s officially known is this week’s PGA Tour event, and there’s a lot to be excited about.

Firstly, it’s a great event, there’s no denying that. The atmosphere at the par-3 16th is rivalled by no other on the PGA Tour calendar, due to the grandstand around the green.

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The grandstand holds 30,000 people and as a result the course is known as the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale. The reactions on the 16th green are like no other on Tour, and the crowd will cheer if a ball lands close or even on the green, but miss the green and be prepared for a ringing echo of boos from those in the stands.

The crowd erupted when Tiger Woods made a hole-in-one here in 1997, and he will be playing here this week for the first time since 2001. Despite a 13-year absence from the former World No.1, this event is the most attended event year in-year out and last year a set a tournament week attendance record of 563,008 fans.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the record was re-written again this year, as we have a stellar field, and probably the best for a number of years. Three of the top-10 and eight of the top-20 in the World Golf Rankings will be here this week, and the headline names have made the trip to Phoenix in the same week the Super Bowl is in town.

Unfortunately, players are now banned from throwing gifts into the crowd, and the caddie race is no longer a dramatic factor, and this has been received pretty poorly in the golfing world. Phil Mickelson, a crowd favourite due to his Arizona State education, will no doubt save a few pennies this year, as he’s been known to throw cash and Super Bowl tickets into the crowd over the years.

So what can we expect from the event this week?

Plenty of birdies is a guarantee for starters. The winning score at this event ranges between -15 and -28 in the last five years, with Mickelson tying Mark Calcavecchia’s lowest winning score of -28 in 2013. Mickelson did this by shooting a first-round 60, in which he lipped out for birdie on 18 for that ever elusive 59.

You can also expect it to be a close-run battle come Sunday. Of the last five winners, only Mickelson (4 strokes) has won by more than one stroke, so it’s fair generally you don’t get a runaway winner, and that may well be down to the tough four-hole stretch to finish.

Water comes into play on three of the last four holes, and the 16th is more than likely a very tense tee-shot especially if you’re in contention. TPC Scottsdale (Stadium Course) is now a 7,266 yard, par 71 and if the course is dry, length off the tee definitely becomes more vital.

There have been several changes made to the course since this time last year, with a $12 million overhaul. The re-design has meant changes to all 18 holes, most notably four new green locations and major changes to the par-5 13th.

New greens have been laid and therefore may not be as receptive as in previous years, which may well effect the winning score.

Here is a handy article from Golf Digest, highlighting seven key changes to the course. – http://www.golfdigest.com/blogs/the-loop/2014/11/the-7-coolest-changes-made-to.html

You will need to hit plenty of greens here to set up enough birdie chances to stay in the hunt, and considering three (Mickelson, Mahan and Wilson) of the last five winners have ranked 1st in Greens in Regulation en-route to victory here, it’s hard to side with anyone who ranks low in that statistic so far this year.

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Market Leaders:

Bubba Watson – 16/1

Jordan Spieth – 16/1

Matt Kuchar – 22/1

Rickie Fowler – 22/1

Tiger Woods – 25/1

The head of the market is most definitely strong and four of the five players have finished inside the top-6 on at least one occasion, Spieth being the exception.

Spieth is making his first appearance in this event, but as we have seen over the past two years, he can play just about anywhere.

Spieth has gone 3-1-1 in his last three starts, and as a result is joint favourite with Bubba Watson, who collapsed here last year to hand Kevin Stadler his maiden victory on Tour. That 2nd was Watson’s second top-5 in three years, and his third top-10 in eight starts here, so it’s not tough to see why he heads the betting this week.

Matt Kuchar has finished 3rd and 2nd on his last two starts, and has also finished 6th here back in 2009 but apart from that he is lacking somewhat in course form. He has only played here six times, since making his debut in 2002 and he two missed cuts, and his 33rd place finish in his last start here in 2012 was his second best effort.

He is a much better player, and most definitely more consistent nowadays, and with the form he is in, it would hardy be a surprise to see him contend here.

To complete the five, you have Rickie Fowler who finished 2nd to Hunter Mahan here in 2010, and Tiger Woods who has not played this event since 2001 when he managed to come 5th.

After a 13-year hiatus from this event, and a two-month break from competitive golf, where he still showed signs of struggle, it’s hard to see him winning this week, or even replicating that 5th place finish back in 2001.

Fowler had a career-year in 2014, but still didn’t manage to add to his sole PGA Tour victory at the Wells Fargo in 2012, and considering he could only manage a 66th place finish in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, despite a strong opening round he may be one to avoid at 22/1. His 2nd here in 2010 and his 13th the year after will be difficult to ignore for some however and I am sure there will be some interest in him this week.

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Here are my picks for the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Phil Mickelson 28/1 (Coral) 1pt e/w:

I was originally quite reluctant to get Mickelson involved so early in the season, but after a good showing last week, I couldn’t resist putting him in at what I consider a very fair price.

Mickelson is a three-time winner of this event, and he shares the most wins record with Marc Calcavecchia, Gene Littler and Arnold Palmer.

He will be looking to make it four wins at this event, and take the outright lead in most wins here, especially at what he can consider a home event. Mickelson will always be a favourite at this event, as he graduated from Arizona State, so whilst he was not born here, he spent a good period of his life in this state.

His -28 winning score in 2013 tied Calcavecchia for the lowest in the competition’s history, and his first-round 60 that year was his second at this event, he also did it in 2005 – he won that week too.

Mickelson is cutting back his schedule this year to spend more time with his family, but he will no doubt always make time for this event. He said this last week “It was a good week, but some of the fine-tuning needs to get a little bit sharper,” before saying “I’m really excited about this upcoming year. I feel like I’m ready to go and ready to get started. We’ll see in the next two weeks if I can get that fine-tuning done and shoot the low scores I need.”

Both points were very positive I thought, even if he did say some fine-tuning was required. It’s not often you shoot -15 on the week and say there is still improvement to be made, so it will be interesting to see just how well he fares here.

He commented that he needed to get the ball closer to hole, in order to set up more birdie chances, and he will definitely need that here.

Another positive from last week was his ball-striking. Considering this was his first start since the Ryder Cup back in September, it really impressed me that he managed to rank inside the top-20 in both Driving Accuracy and Greens in Regulation and that was during the “fine-tuning period”.

There was bound to be some rust in his game last week, so to shoot -15 on the week and finish a respectable T23 must have been particularly pleasing, ahead of one of favourite events.

Mickelson is a player that is always very hard to predict, but he seems to be making the right noises, and his first appearance since September wasn’t too shabby. At 28/1 I thought it was worth having him onside as he is the outsider at the head of the betting, despite winning this event three times before.

Hunter Mahan 45/1 (Bet365) 1pt e/w: 

Hunter Mahan is not a player I back often, and he has certainly had his fair share of struggles in the past, be it mentally or physically, but this event seems to suit him to the ground, and I really do like his chances this week.

Mahan is a previous winner of this event, winning here in 2010 and since that win he has finished 29-16-4, getting progressively better again each year. If the trend continues he is going to be bang in contention and it’s not difficult to see why.

He hits a ton of greens when on form, and so far this season he ranks 2nd in Greens in Regulation, hitting a little under 80% (143/180). He hit over 84% of Greens in Regulation on his last start at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, something that very much caught my eye.

So far this season it has been his scoring on the par-3s that has held him back, as he is currently +10 on the short holes, whilst -12 on the par 4’s and -22 on the par 5’s. Now of course you fully expect a player’s score over the season to be better on par 5’s than you do 3’s that’s just common sense but to put his par 3 scoring into perspective, he currently ranks 200th on Tour at +10, whilst Ben Martin leads the Tour in Par 3 Performance, as he is currently -16, that’s a 26 shot difference – an issue in my opinion.

He finished T3 at the Frys.com, just three shots shy of winner Sang-Moon Bae, and he was +4 on the par 3’s, so that was literally the difference between him winning that week.

It is of course dangerous to focus so much on area of a player’s game, as most players have a weakness, and I am confident Mahan can have a good week, especially if he improves his par-3 scoring.

At 45/1 I thought he looked big, considering he has won and finished 4th in his last four starts at this course. He ended his two-year spell without a win, taking the spoils at The Barclays, his first FedEx Cup play-off win, and his sixth overall win on the PGA Tour. This would have done him the world of good, and he will be keen to follow-up with a good season in 2015, hopefully starting here!

Billy Horschel 50/1 (General) 1pt e/w:

Like Mahan, Horschel is a very good ball-striker, currently ranking 26th in Greens in Regulation and also 37th in Driving Accuracy, which currently sees him ranked 16th in Ball Striking.

He finished 41st last week, but that is a bit misleading in terms of his play, as he was actually going along very nicely at -15, and up there on the leaderboard until he made a 9 on the par-5 14th. He did manage to birdie his very next hole (a par-3) and also birdied the 18th to salvage a level par round in the end.

He was T3 in Greens in Regulation last week, hitting 77.78%, the same amount as winner Bill Haas. This is a great sign heading into this week, as he looks to be striking the ball brilliantly and hopefully he can keep that up here in Phoenix.

The reigning FedEx Cup champion has hardly set the world alight so far in the 2015 season, but I expect that to change this week, as he is showing some very promising signs.

Along with those signs, Horschel also finished 11th here on debut in 2013, and although he missed the cut here last year, I do think this course suits his game.

We know he can shoot low numbers, that’s never been an issue in his game, and he is the sort of player that can get on a hot streak and ride that momentum, as he proved in the FedEx Cup play-offs. He can definitely get on a roll on the greens and if he can get the ball rolling at the start of the week, I am sure he will contend over the weekend.

Horschel’s back-to-back wins in the FedEx Cup play-offs last year confirmed what many people believed to be the case, he has the potential to join the elites of the game and he will be keen to prove that.

He now has three wins in the last two years, after getting his first at the Zurich Classic in 2013, and I see no reason why he can’t add to those in 2015. At 50/1 I think he is worth having onside this week, after what really was a solid effort last week at the Humana Challenge.

Kevin Na 100/1 (Coral) 0.5pt e/w:

Kevin Na had a very solid 2014, posting six top-10’s, including two 2nd’s and a 3rd and he will be looking for similar consistency this year.

He lost in a play-off to Hideki Matsuyama at the Memorial Tournament last year, the closest he has come to a win on the PGA Tour since his one and only victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in 2011.

Although he hasn’t got off to the best of starts this season, he did start quickly finishing 2nd at the CIMB Classic back in November and he will be looking to find some of that form again, sharpish.

Without standing out, Na played soldily, at the Humana Challenge last week, much like Horschel, but only managed a T48 finish. He didn’t make enough birdies to ever worry the leaders, but he did shoot four rounds under par and also led the field in Greens in Regulation hitting over 80%. That is very promising ahead of this week, and looking at his past form in this event, I am to give him a chance to build on last week’s performance.

In nine appearances in this event, he has finished inside the top-5 four times, including his runner-up finish on debut in 2005. The most recent of his top-5s came in 2012, when he finished T5 and he has since finished 36th and 19th so he tends to play solidly at the very least around this track.

With the momentum from last week in terms of greens hit on his side, I am hoping he can turn a solid week into a more spectacular one this time around and make it five top-5s in ten appearances, which would give him an impressive 50% strike rate.

Considering he has finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th here, plus only one missed cut I thought three-figure odds about him was very fair this week, and I really do hope his ball-striking from last week carries over to this, and he can post his 2nd top-5 of the season or better still, his 2nd PGA Tour win.

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Profit/Loss for 2015: -14

This should be a great event for multiple reasons, and I feel very good about my selections. There are some nice prices on offer, as the field is very deep this year and I hope come Sunday these four selections look even better value than I feel they do now.