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At WMPO, embrace the chaos and enjoy the party

By Will GrayFebruary 1, 2018, 12:38 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Don’t let the noise distract you.

The party was pumping Wednesday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, just like it always does. Fans came in droves to stand six-deep during a pro-am round, and pros and celebrities alike were serenaded by a DJ turning up the tunes as they stepped to the tee at the iconic par-3 16th.

Disc jockey, that is. Not Dustin Johnson.

But Johnson is one of the few big names missing this week from the PGA Tour’s biggest party, which has not-so-quietly transitioned from an event defined by a 163-yard cauldron to one that boasts a sneaky strong field amid a hectic West Coast Swing.

Five of the top seven players in the world are here this week. It's a field headlined by former Arizona State product Jon Rahm and one that includes two-time defending champ Hideki Matsuyama. Rickie Fowler, a runner-up two years ago, has also returned, while Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas will have a chance to rekindle their oft-discussed friendship as they play the first two rounds together.

The party atmosphere remains alive and well, and now it’s starting to attract some of the game’s biggest names.

“I think everybody appreciates what this tournament is, and that this is a special week, different than any other that we have on Tour,” said Phil Mickelson, who is making his record-tying 29th tournament appearance. “Guys kind of embrace that, and they embrace this environment.”

This week’s winner is projected to receive 60 OWGR points, the largest haul offered in the Arizona desert since Mickelson won the second of his three titles back in 2005. The number dipped as low as 50 in 2012, but in the years since it has been on a decidedly upward tick as more and more top-ranked players try their hand amid an unparalleled atmosphere.

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Credit is due to tournament organizers, who have proven to be forward-thinking and willing to embrace the challenges of a date on the calendar that regularly pits this tournament against the Super Bowl. Tour events are not necessarily known for their willingness to make widespread changes, but a quick trip to YouTube shows that when Tiger Woods made his famous ace on 16 back in 1997, the hole was lined with fans on foot rather than those propped up in sky-high grandstands and hospitality tents.

These days, there’s not only a cavern enveloping the entire 16th hole, but the three-story skyboxes have also popped up on the adjacent 17th green and down the final fairway. There are minor villages serving as watering holes throughout the property, with nearly every hillside occupied by at least a few dozen fans.

A tournament that once hung its hat on a single memorable hole has both literally and figuratively evolved.

“I like this place,” said Thomas, who is playing for the fourth straight year. “I think word’s kind of spreading, once people come here and kind of feel the somewhat of a major-type feel with some of the roars and the crowds, especially on some of those holes where you get a lot of people.”

Spieth offered a unique view on the tournament’s recent rise in prominence, noting that it has coincided with an era in which players like he and Thomas have climbed toward the top of the world rankings at a young age. It’s a theory that certainly has merit given that the average age of a top-10 player is currently 28.5 years old, an unprecedented low.

“I think there’s probably a little bit of a trend with it being the younger guys coming out and really enjoying this craziness,” Spieth said. “I think if you take an average age, it’s gone younger in the top 20, top 30 in the world, so I think that would probably tell you that it makes the field stronger.”

Craziness seems like an appropriate descriptor, and it’s one this event doesn’t shy away from, with fan estimates measured in the hundreds of thousands by week’s end. But the Stadium Course layout also plays a role in enticing players to return year after year.

That’s at least according to Thomas, who admitted he skips the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China every year despite the guaranteed points and money offered because he simply doesn’t think he can win at Shenzhen International Golf Club.

“At least for me it’s misunderstood,” Thomas said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go play Phoenix just because it’s a party and so much fun,’ and this and that. But I really do like this golf course, and that’s why I come play. I would never come play a tournament just because it’s fun.”

Whatever their motivations, some of the biggest names have gathered this week in the desert, where many of the game’s mores will go out the window. For one week only, players bask in an emotionally-charged atmosphere, and they even let their hair down a bit when walking to the 16th hole.

Bring on the noise. Embrace the chaos. Enjoy the party.

Luke List, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Tiger Woods at the 2018 Honda Classic Getty Images

Honda leaders face daunting final day

By Randall MellFebruary 25, 2018, 12:46 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The winner may need a cut man in his corner more than he needs a caddie on his bag in Sunday’s finish to the Honda Classic.

Smelling salts might come in handy, too.

“It just feels like you are getting punched in the face every single hole here,” Daniel Berger said of the test PGA National’s Champion Course offers. “Every single shot is so hard.”

Final rounds have been especially rough and tumble since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

That usually makes Sundays here as much about who can figuratively take a punch as who can throw one.

Luke List will have his jaw tested after taking sole possession of the lead Saturday with a second consecutive round of 4-under-par 66, but he can take comfort in the fact that punishment is doled plentifully around here.

“Just realizing that everyone is facing the same obstacles out there is huge,” List said. “You're not alone out there, if you make a bogey or a bad swing here or there.”

At 7-under 203, List is one shot ahead of a pair of major championship winners, Justin Thomas (65) and Webb Simpson (66). He is two ahead of Tommy Fleetwood (67), the reigning European Tour Player of the Year, and Jamie Lovemark (68).

List, 33, is seeking his first PGA Tour title in his 104th start. He will have to hold off some heavyweights, including Tiger Woods (69), who is seven shots back but feeling like he has a chance again. Woods closed with a 62 here six years ago when he finished second to Rory McIlroy.

“You never know what can happen the last few holes here,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen and have happened in the past.”


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Crazy things have happened here.

Three years ago, Padraig Harrington was five shots down with eight holes to play and won. He made two double bogeys in the final round but ended up beating Berger in a playoff.

Berger, by the way, was nine shots back entering the final round.

That was the year Ian Poulter took a share of lead into Sunday, hit five balls in the water and still finished just a shot out of the playoff.

Last year, Rickie Fowler made four bogeys and a double bogey in the final round and still won by four shots.

List will have a heavyweight playing alongside him in the final pairing, with 24-year-old Justin Thomas looking to claim his eighth PGA Tour title. Thomas was last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year.

List has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event.

“You guys build up certain players,” List said. “I know I'll be an underdog going against Justin Thomas and guys like that, which is fine.”

There is some inspiration for List in what Ted Potter Jr. did two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Potter, largely unknown even though he already had a PGA Tour title to his credit, held off stars Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in the final round to win. 

Thomas earned the right to play alongside List in the final pairing Sunday with his 65, which equaled the low round of the tournament.

Thomas makes his home in nearby Jupiter and knows the punishment the Champion Course can dish out.

“It's a difficult course,” Thomas said. “If you let it get to you, it can be frustrating, but if you go into it understanding and realizing it's difficult, you just kind of embrace it and deal with it.”

Thomas played the Bear Trap’s trio of daunting holes (Nos. 15-17) in 2 under on Saturday. He birdied the 15th and 17th holes.

Fleetwood got in contention Saturday with a pair of eagles. He’s a four-time European Tour winner.

“I would love to get my first win on the PGA Tour this week,” he said. “It’s just great to be out here. It's great to be playing on courses like this that are such a test of every part of your game.”

Alex Noren, a nine-time European Tour winner, is also seeking his first PGA Tour title. He is three shots back. He lost in a playoff to Day at the Farmers Insurance Open last month.

Though this is just Noren’s second start at the Honda Classic, he knows how wildly momentum can swing on the Champion Course. He shot 65 Saturday after shooting 75 on Friday.

“I’m a few back, but anything can happen,” Noren said.

That’s the theme around here.

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Thomas: Winning hometown Honda would 'mean a lot'

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:53 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas is trying to join Rickie Fowler as a winner of his hometown event.

Thomas will play in the final group alongside Luke List on Sunday at the Honda Classic after matching the low round of the week with a 5-under 65. He is at 6-under 204, one shot back of List.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year is one of several residents of nearby Jupiter. After Fowler won last year, Thomas (who missed the cut) returned to the course to congratulate his neighbor on his fourth Tour title.

“I hope I give him the opportunity or the choice to come back,” Thomas said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf in front of me before I worry about him coming here.”

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More important to Thomas, however, is winning this event, which is played at PGA National, one of the most difficult non-major courses on Tour.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to win any golf tournament, but it would mean more because of how prestigious this golf tournament is and the list of winners that have won this event, how strong of a field it is, how difficult of a golf course.

“A decent number of my wins have been on easier golf courses, so it would be cool to get it done at a place like this.”

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Woods paired with hotshot rookie Burns at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:38 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rookie Sam Burns will be in the biggest spot of his career Sunday – playing alongside Tiger Woods.

Burns, the reigning Nicklaus Award winner who turned pro after two standout years at LSU, will go off with Woods at 12:45 p.m. at the Honda Classic.

Burns, 20, who earned his Tour card via Q-School, is playing this week on a sponsor exemption, his fourth of the season. He is 13th on the money list this year, after a tie for second two weeks ago in Colombia.

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Burns and Woods are tied for 11th, at even-par 210.

Sunday is an important round for Burns, who can earn a spot into the Valspar Championship with a top-10 finish here.

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List leads Honda; Thomas one back

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 24, 2018, 11:25 pm

Luke List, one of a legion of PGA Tour players who live in Jupiter, just two exits up I-95 from PGA National, shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead after three rounds of the Honda Classic. Here's how things stand going into the final round at PGA National:

Leaderboard: Luke List (-7), Justin Thomas (-6), Webb Simpson (-6), Tommy Fleetwood (-5), Jamie Lovemark (-5), Alex Noren (-4) 

What it means: Leader List has played well this season, with no finish lower than T-26 in six starts. Thomas, of course, is the reigning Player of the Year. The next best pedigree among the leaders belongs to Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and three other PGA Tour titles.

Round of the day: Thomas and Noren both shot 5-under 65s. Thomas made two of his six birdies in the Bear Trap (at the par 3s, Nos. holes 15 and17), while Noren played that stretch (15-17) in 1 over. Noren made his hay elsewhere, including an eagle at the last that canceled out his two bogeys.

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Best of the rest: List, Simpson and Kelly Kraft all shot 66.

Biggest disappointment: After an opening 76, Jimmy Walker probably thought he was back on track with a 68 that allowed him to make the cut. Alas, the improvement was temporary, as he ballooned back to a 74 on Saturday.

Shot of the day: Tommy Fleetwood hit a fairway wood from 282 yards to within 8 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He then made the putt for his second eagle of the day.

Quote of the day: "The course played a fair bit easier with not as much wind." - Thomas

Biggest storyline going into Sunday: List may be in the lead, but most eyes will be on Thomas, a five-time winner last year who has yet to lift a trophy in 2018. And of course, more than a few people will be keeping tabs on Tiger Woods. He'll begin the day seven shots back, trying to channel Tiger of 2012 - when he posted a 62 on Sunday at PGA National (which was good only for a runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy).