Waste Management Phoenix Open Player Profiles

Editorial StaffFebruary 6, 2022
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Last year, we teed up interviews with such PGA Tour favorites as Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson. Now, we return with seven golfers to know on the eve of the 2022 tournament – including the major-crushing Floridian who won it all last year.

JON RAHM

  • CURRENT WORLD GOLF RANKING: 1 (as of 11/28/21)
  • CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: The Arizona State University-educated crowd favorite won his first PGA major last year at the U.S. Open; it was his sixth overall PGA Tour victory to go with six European Tour titles.
  • BEST WMPO FINISH: T5 (2015)

Rahm did something last year that fellow Sun Devil Phil Mickelson still hasn’t – win a U.S. Open. The 27-year-old Spaniard also became a father for the first time, all en route to earning the mantle of being the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Next up? Winning his adopted hometown’s tournament.

Jon-Rahm-iron-shot

What’s the best part of playing in the WMPO?

Well, first of all, it’s a home event. Get to sleep in my own bed, so it’s nice. Obviously, my first cut made on the PGA Tour was here [in 2015]. Had a great finish as an amateur, and the whole Sun Devil vibe and just the familiarity with everything. I love the event, love the fans.

What’s the most memorable thing that you’ve heard on 16?

Oh, a lot of things I can’t mention. But I must say, the crowd [I missed in 2021] – usually about 50 or so off the tee to the left – are people from Minnesota. They’re always dressed in Vikings gear, and they do their research on players because they have chants about me, my caddie, friends, things we’ve done in the past, college teammates. Just fun things from your life that they know. That’s probably one of the most memorable things.

So, it’s fair to say you love the madness of 16?

I mean, listen, one of the reasons why you play here is the atmosphere. I love it. I wish every single week was like that. It’s the closest thing we’re going to feel to be playing basically on a football stadium, right, on Saturday when you have 100,000 people here just having fun. Those last few holes are unique, and as golfers, you don’t get that that often,

BROOKS KOEPKA, DEFENDING CHAMPION

CURRENT WORLD RANKING: 16 (as of 12/3/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Four-time major winner (2018 and 2019 PGA Championship,
2017 and 2018 U.S. Open); two-time WMPO winner.
BEST WMPO FINISH: 1 (2015, 2021)

The 31-year-old Florida native is known to be especially motivated by major championships – four of his eight career wins fall into that category – but like all WMPO alphas, he also knows how to feed off the tournament’s electric fan energy. Koepka has a shot to be the first three-time winner at TPC Scottsdale since Phil Mickelson completed the hat trick in 2013.

Perhaps nobody was happier to see fans – diminished in number though they were – at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last year than Brooks Koepka.

“Every time I played well, it’s been in front of fans,” he said following his victory. “I struggle with no fans. I can’t get the energy. There is nothing. It’s kind of very flat.”

All photos courtesy WMPO
All photos courtesy WMPO

While the volume level on the ground was nowhere near the norm – only 5,000 fans were allowed on the property each day due to pandemic protocols – Koepka marshaled the nominal crowd support into his second WMPO title. (He also won in 2015, which happened to be the first championship of his PGA Tour career.) His formula for final round success at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course? “Yeah, just got to be within three on the back nine,” he says, referring to last year, when a third round 66 left him five strokes behind co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. “Anything can happen here. Obviously with quite a bit of water off the backside, especially on 11 and 15 and 17, you can make a bogey very quickly. If you hit a good shot, you can make birdie. It’s good risk/reward. But it’s fun, and anything can happen.”

He made sure of that with birdies on 13, 14 and 15 (leaving him three strokes behind the leaders, who were making the turn while playing a few holes behind him) before executing his best shot on the par-4 17th: a chipped-in eagle from just off the green to take a one-stroke lead he never relinquished. “If I just caught it right in the fringe it was going to check up on me, and it did perfectly,” he says. “Took a nice little right kick for me, and didn’t look anywhere else but the hole.”

This year, the 31-year-old will try to become just the fifth three-time winner of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, joining an exclusive club featuring Phil Mickelson,

Mark Calcavecchia, Gene Littler and Arnold Palmer. And with the number of spectators expected to be closer to normal this year, Koepka’s chances will be even better.

“I don’t know, it’s what I live for,” he says. “I live for those moments where you got to close, you got to hit some quality shots, quality putts. I don’t know, I just like showing off, I guess.”

MAX HOMA

CURRENT WORLD RANKING: 34 (as of 11/28/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Three PGA Tour wins, two of which came in 2021 in his home state of California; won the 2013 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Individual Golf Championship while playing for University of California, Berkeley.
BEST WMPO FINISH: T6 (2020)

Yet another California native who now lives in Scottsdale, Homa, 31, is almost as well known for his jocular Twitter posts (@maxhoma23) as his golf skills. He followed up his best year as a professional in 2020-2021 by winning the first tournament of the 2021-2022 season. Should he win in Scottsdale, he’d be first Scottsdale resident to win the WMPO since Kevin Stadler in 2014.

How strange was last year’s WMPO with minimum fans?

It felt like a normal event, which was weird, given what the Waste Management Phoenix Open is regarded for with respect to crowd sizes. It will be good to get back to normal, hopefully in 2022, because that is easily one of the most fun events of the year.

Do you encourage fans to make more noise when you play the 16th?

I don’t try to encourage the fans to kick it up, because I don’t need to. They don’t need much enticing, especially at No. 16. But I like when it gets loud. I think golf could use more of that kind of thing.

There have only been four aces at No. 16 since Tiger’s famous hole-in-one there in 1997. Why so few?

I don’t think it’s a matter of a fear of being booed, but there are definitely some nerves playing that hole in front of that many people. It gets your heart racing a little more. Nerves definitely play a factor. Other than, maybe, a Ryder Cup, I don’t know that anything tests the nerves quite like the tee shot at 16.

How special would it be for you as a Scottsdale resident to win the event?

Yeah, it would be really cool to win. I’d only have five minutes to drive home if I won. It’s just a very special tournament and very unique to any other event we play on Tour.

HAROLD VARNER III

CURRENT WORLD RANKING: 89 (as of 11/281/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Starred at East Carolina University before going pro in 2012; his only professional win so far came at the 2016 Australian PGA Championship, but he’s qualified for the FedExCup for the past six years.
BEST WMPO FINISH: T10 (2019)

One of the relative handful of African Americans currently playing on the PGA Tour, Varner is coming off his best year as a professional, in which he had his first second-place finish among 10 Top 25s. Relatively short in height (he’s 5-feet-8 in cleats) but long off the tee, the 31-year-old banked just over $2 million in prize money last year.

How weird was it playing in front of significantly smaller crowds at last year’s WMPO?

It sucked! I’m really looking forward to getting it back to as normal as possible. It’s going to be fun. I’ve got some of my best friends coming out again in 2022, so I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a big time.

Do you prefer the 16th hole to be crowded or more subdued, like last year?

I want No. 16 as wild as possible.

There have only been four aces at 16 since Tiger’s famous hole-in-one there in 1997. Why so few?

The pins they use there are sometimes a bit tricky with the different elevation and slopes. But with so many fans watching and going nuts for someone to make an ace… you just want to get it done. I get so psyched up and nervous at the same time when I walk onto the tee box, I can barely breathe. But I try to give it a go for a one.

Have you ever played in any other events quite like the WMPO?

None, not even close. The Waste Management Phoenix Open is absolutely in a great class of its own with everything it has going on year after year.

SCOTTIE SCHEFFLER

CURRENT WORLD GOLF RANKING: 19 (as of 11/28/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: The University of Texas product has nine Top 5 finishes in his first two seasons as a professional, and four Top 10 finishes in majors; played on the championship U.S. team in the 2021 Ryder Cup.
BEST WMPO FINISH: T7 (2021)

Now in his third season, the 25-year-old Texan is getting closer than ever to his first PGA Tour win. Even without a first-place finish, the massively talented Scheffler has already banked a cool $8.3 million in prize money, leveraging his tall (6-foot-3) frame for power and consistency. Don’t be surprised if he finally nabs his breakthrough win right here in the desert.

Do you prefer the 16th hole packed with fans or more like last year with limited/no fans?

I like it packed with fans, no doubt. A few tournaments have tried to replicate that vibe and energy, but nothing has been nearly as big and boisterous.

There have only been four aces on 16 since Tiger’s famous hole-in-one there in 1997. Why so few?

I think when they put those two pins in the back, it’s kinda hard to get it back there to the back left. The only hole-in-ones, I think, are front left. If they put it front-right, there is a slope that goes up to the right and down to the left, so it’s difficult to get it close… especially with how firm the greens are. Plus, most players tend to hit it a little safer to the middle of the green, because they don’t want to get booed.

If you weren’t playing, would you rather hang at No. 16 with friends in the stands or take in a great concert at the Birds Nest?

I’d probably go to the Birds Nest. I play too much golf to want to watch golf

JAMES HAHN

CURRENT WORLD RANKING: 210 (as of 11/28/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Played collegiately at the University of California, Berkeley and turned pro in 2003 but had a long development arc, playing on the Canadian and Korean tours before graduating to the Nationwide Tour in 2010; won the 2015 Northern Trust Open and the 2016 Wells Fargo Championship, both in playoffs.
BEST WMPO FINISH: 10 (2021)

The 40-year-old former Nordstrom shoe salesman carded five Top 10s in the 2020-2021 season – the first time he accomplished that feat since joining the PGA Tour in 2013. Born in South Korea but raised in Northern California, Hahn is another Cali product who now lives in Scottsdale. This year will mark his 10th consecutive WMPO appearance.

How weird was last year with so fewer spectators watching?

It actually wasn’t weird at all, because we do play in a lot of markets where we don’t get many fans. Last year, I was playing well and was paired with Brooks Koepka on Saturday and Sunday. I feel like it was just as loud as when it was a normal event… less people, but just as much noise.

Would you rather play a packed 16th hole or like last year with fewer fans?

I prefer it jam-packed. I think the future of golf viewing should be like the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where they have that kind of stadium-style seating for people to kick back and watch a little golf come through. That kind of seating and skyboxes is a great way for people to spectate and enjoy some golf and make it exciting without them having to walk miles and miles.

There have only been four aces at No. 16 since Tiger’s famous hole-in-one there in 1997. Why so few?

Well, let’s be honest, making a hole-in-one anywhere is hard. But at TPC Scottsdale’s 16th, the penalty for not hitting the green is more on people’s minds than hitting a hole-in-one. Really, it’s just a short iron, but the guys’ mentality when they get to that hole is not to go for a one, but a two. Even as the world’s best players, we are out there competing. So, the percentage of making an ace is so small that it’s really not even something we try to think about.

WILL ZALATORIS

CURRENT WORLD GOLF RANKING: 32 (as of 11/28/21)
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Won 2020-2021 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, largely on the basis of his second-place finish at the 2021 Masters; previously won the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur tournament and was on the winning U.S. team in the 2017 Walker Cup as a student-athlete at Wake Forest University.
BEST WMPO FINISH: T17 (2021)

The slender San Francisco native drew worldwide attention with a fantastic performance in his first Masters last year and then followed it up with a Top 10 finish in the PGA Championship. He ended the season with eight Top-10 finishes overall. Not too shabby for a 25-year-old in his first season on the PGA Tour.

What was your initial reaction to playing in the WMPO?

I know a lot of guys that love this tournament, love the atmosphere. Obviously, a little bit of a bummer that it [was] pretty scaled down [in 2021], but getting my first taste of it is pretty cool. I know the first time I saw [the 16th-hole stadium]… even though they said it’s a third of the height and only 2,400 people in there… [I saw]] guys all the way over from the range chirping at players in the pro-am.

What have you heard about the infamous crowd at the 16th hole?

I know the guys have joked that some of the fans will dig up some of your deepest, darkest secrets and chirp it at you as you’re playing. You have to enjoy it. That’s what makes it so fun. If you miss a green, they’re booing. I’ve had some friends that have said it’s a tournament that they have always wanted to play in because of the atmosphere, and so [it’s] obviously a lot of fun to be inside the ropes and get to experience it.

How did you approach the WMPO in 2021?

Kind of [just got] my feet wet before we have 300,000 people out there. I’m looking forward to [2022] when we’ve got all those people and just experiencing the craziness.

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