Phoenix Open: Prolific Thomas a fair price to win but focus on in-play for best value

Golfer Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas - fancied to bounce back by The Punter

The vast crowds won't be in attendance but the Phoenix Open is still an event to look forward to so read Steve's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's start here...

“Taking on the third-round leaders has been a licence to print money of late so bear that in mind when assessing the situation on Sunday morning.”

Tournament History

Originally known as the Arizona Open and first staged 89 years ago, the Phoenix Open is one of the oldest events on the PGA Tour.

Famous for its raucous crowd alongside the infamous par three 16th hole, the Phoenix Open should be a quieter affair this time around, although there's still going to be 5,000 fans in attendance for some reason.

There's nearly always a tight finish here and four of the last five renewals have gone into extra time.

Venue

TPC Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Arizona

Course Details

Par 71, 7,261 yards
Hole averages in 2020 - 70.32

Best known for its barmy par three 16th hole, this Stadium Course was built specifically for this event and is host for the 33rd time. It's a links-style desert track with an exciting finish. The 15th is a reachable par five with water in play (averaged 4.64 last year) and the 17th is a drivable par four play (averaged 3.74 12 months ago) but that too has water in play.

The 17th is the hole that tripped up the 2019 winner, Rickie Fowler, five years ago when he found the drink with his drive, having been matched at just 1.031/33 in-play on the Betfair Exchange, but it won him the event two years ago when Branden Grace found the drink, having hit a low of 1.42/5 and Martin Laird also found the water in 2015 when leading and having been matched at odds-on.

TPC SCOTTSDALE 2021 3.jpg

Even though the course was tweaked and lengthened prior to the 2015 edition, look out for low scores. Wyndham Clark opened up last year's renewal with a ten-under-par 61 and there have been four rounds of 60 here, the last by Phil Mickelson, eight years ago.

The Bermuda greens are of an average size and they typically run fast at around 12 on the stimpmeter.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky throughout the event with live Featured Group coverage on Sky starting at 14:30 on Thursday afternoon. The full live coverage starts at 20:00 (UK and Ireland time).

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2020 - Webb Simpson -17 24.023/1 (playoff)
2019 - Rickie Fowler -17 16.015/1
2018 - Gary Woodland -18 70.069/1 (playoff)
2017 - Hideki Matsuyama -17 12.011/1 (playoff)
2016 - Hideki Matsuyama -14 27.026/1 (playoff)

What Will it Take to Win the Phoenix Open?

Last year's playoff protagonists, Webb Simpson and Tony Finau, demonstrated perfectly that neither driving metric is crucial. The winner, Simpson, who birdied the last two holes to draw level with the luckless Finau, ranked only 44th for Driving Distance but as high as fourth for Driving Accuracy whereas Finau ranked only for 52nd for DA but 16th for DD. The average DD ranking for the last six winners is 19.8 and the average DA ranking is 20.7

Up until 2010 putting was the most important stat but that's changed completely of late and hitting plenty of greens is the key to success now.

Fowler only ranked 13th for Greens In Regulation two years ago but Simpson ranked sixth last year, Woodland ranked fourth in 2018, Hideki Matsuyama ranked number two for GIR when he defended his title in 2017 and he topped the GIR stats in 2016. Brooks Koepka ranked fourth for GIR when winning in 2015 so the average ranking of the last six winners is fifth.

The 2014 winner, Kevin Stadler, only ranked 10th but had the runner-up, Graham DeLaet, took the title he'd have been the fourth winner in five years to win the tournament ranking number one for greens hit. GIR is far and away the most important of the main stats.

Scoring well on the par fours is always key but especially so this week and eight of the last nine winners have ranked inside the top-seven for Par 4 Scoring. Simpson and Fowler both topped the stats, Woodland ranked fourth and Matsuyama ranked number one in 2016 but only 10th in 2017. However, the runner-up four years ago, last year's winner, Simpson, and the third, Louis Oosthuizen, ranked third and first.

Is There an Angle In?

Anyone that enjoys desert golf must be considered and given the recent American Express, won two weeks ago by Si Woo Kim, is also played in the desert and as part of the West Coast Swing, it's perhaps not surprising to see that a number of players have performed well at both events.

Phil Mickelson, Mark Wilson and Kenny Perry have all won both this event and the Desert Classic fairly recently and a number of players have come close to winning both. Jason Dufner, who won the American Express in 2016, was beaten in a playoff here by Wilson in 2011, Charley Hoffman was beaten by Perry in extra time here, two years after he'd won the Desert Classic in 2007, and Justin Leonard is another to win the American Express and finish second in Phoenix. Jesper Parnevik, John Rollins and Ryan Palmer have all finished runner-up at both events.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2020 - Webb Simpson solo 2nd - trailing by one 3.711/4
2019 - Rickie Fowler led by four strokes 1.422/5
2018 - Gary Woodland tied 8th - trailing by three 42.041/1
2017 - Hideki Matsuyama tied 3rd - trailing by four 8.415/2
2016 - Hideki Matsuyama tied 2nd- trailing by three 5.85/1

In-Play Tactics

If any of your picks start slowly this week they might not necessarily be down and out.

Having ended the first round tied for 66th and ten off the lead, Simpson was matched in running at 250.0249/1 last year and he's far from the first winner to begin the event at a pedestrian pace...

Brooks Koepka was matched at 320.0319/1 in-running in 2015, as he trailed by seven strokes after rounds one and two. Kyle Stanley was tied 33rd and five back after round one in 2012, Hunter Mahan was tied for 29th and six back after round one and seven adrift at halfway in 2011 and Kenny Perry sat 74th and seven back after round one in 2009.

Although Rickie Fowler was in front through 54 holes two years ago, he was a very lucky winner in the end and TPC Scottsdale has been a graveyard for third round leaders in recent years.

Fowler opened up the 2019 renewal with rounds of 64, 65 and 64 to take a four-stroke lead into Sunday but he needed Branden Grace to mess up the 17th hole to eventually get him across the line having double-bogeyed the fifth, tripled the 11th and bogeyed the 12th.

Stress-free finishes are rare at Scottsdale and Phil Mickelson, when six clear in 2013, is the only other 54 hole leader to go on to win in the last 11 years. Plenty of players have messed up in front here recently and Fowler was very close to doing so two years running!

Fowler fell from first to 11th three years ago and although Byeong Hun An only led by one through 54 holes in 2017, he moved three clear and was matched at just 1.4740/85 before imploding.

Danny Lee led by three after 54 holes in 2016 and he was matched in-running at just 2.26/5 early on in round four but he was soon caught and passed. And he was the second player in two years to give up a three-stroke 54-hole lead...

Martin Laird hit a low of 1.910/11 six years ago with just two holes to play, having led by three at the start of the day, but he bogeyed the 17th and then double-bogeyed the last.

Bubba Watson traded at just 1.528/15 seven years ago before messing up late on, Spencer Levin tamely relinquished a SIX-stroke lead in 2012, when he shot 75 in round four, and prior to him, Tommy Gainey shot 75 to fall from first to eighth and Brandt Snedeker suffered a complete meltdown in 2010, shooting 78 to finish 43rd!

Taking on the third-round leaders has been a licence to print money of late so bear that in mind when assessing the situation on Sunday morning.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

We've seen plenty of high-class winners of late. Multiple major winners, Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka, won in 2013 and 2015 and four of the five winners after Brooks have been inside the top-20 of the world rankings.

Market Leaders

Scottsdale resident, Jon Rahm, is highly likely to contend again. After finishing second in the ZOZO Championship at the end of October he's finished seventh in each of his last three outings and in five previous appearances in this event he's never finished worse than 16th. There are negatives though...

He should really have won the ZOZO, he was tied for the lead at halfway at the Masters but shot 72-71 over the weekend, and his 72 at Torrey Pines on Sunday was a disappointing effort given how well suited he is to the course. He could be starting to get frustrated and his debut fifth back in 2015 is still his best effort around TPC Scottsdale.

Jon Rahm watches drive 1280.jpg

Justin Thomas is my idea of the best value at the front of the market. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago in his first appearance since being dropped by Ralph Lauren for uttering a homophobic comment during the Sentry Tournament of Champions but he knows how to bounce back and he finished sixth or better after each of his missed cuts in 2020.

It took Thomas a little while to get to grips with Scottsdale but he's finished third in each of the last two renewals and it would be no surprise to see him go two places better this time around. Thomas has ranked 55th and 58th for Driving Accuracy in each of the last two years, demonstrating that he can get away with a few wayward drives, and that's been his biggest problem of late. Given he's won four of his last 27 starts, he's very prolific and he's the one to beat.

After a fifth placed finish in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a tied second from off the pace at Torrey Pines on Sunday, Xander Schauffele comes into the conversation but his course form figures reading 17-10-16 are underwhelming and he's without a win in more than two years.

It's now 16 months and 20 starts since Rory McIlroy last lifted a trophy and he's disappointed in-contention in each of his last two starts. He finished only third in Abu Dhabi, after leading after rounds one and three, and he could only finish 16th in the Farmers last week, having sat tied eighth and just three back with a round to go. Although the track should certainly suit him, he's never played here before and that too is a bit of a negative.

Defending champion, Webb Simpson, was fourth in the Sony Open last time out and he looks a very fair price at 20.019/1 given how much he loves the venue (beaten in a playoff in 2017). Defending the title is a bit of a negative but when Hideki Matsuyama achieved the feat as recently as 2017, he became the fifth player to win the tournament back-to-back (Arnold Palmer won three in-a-row) so he certainly wouldn't be setting a precedence.

Selections

Given the majority of recent winners have been well fancied, I've had a couple of tiny wagers on the two I like at the head of the market, who happen to be trading at quite a bit higher on the exchange than they are on the High Street - Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson - but it's a tournament I'm very much looking forward to trading in-running.

Selections:
Justin Thomas @ 11.521/2
Webb Simpson @ 20.019/1

I'll be back tomorrow with the Find Me a 100 Winner column.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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