SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Super Bowl week means a few things in the golf world - the Waste Management Phoenix Open, tens of thousands of screaming fans surrounding the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, and several familiar faces at the top of the leaderboard.
The fact that those faces are some of the most recognizable on the PGA Tour certainly doesn’t hurt the desert stop’s popularity.
Hideki Matsuyama beat Rickie Fowler in a playoff at this event last year. Matsuyama trails only Matt Kuchar by only a shot after a first-round 65, while Fowler (67) is three back.
Brooks Koepka (67) won here two years ago, topping (among others) Matsuyama in a playoff; he’s three off the lead.
J.B. Holmes won here in 2006 and 2008; he trails by three after a first-round 66.
Phil Mickelson has won here three times and lost once in a playoff; he shot 68 Thursday and sits four behind.
Bubba Watson lost back-to-back playoffs here in 2014 and 2015; he’s five back after an opening 69.
Even Jon Rahm, whose only previous start here as an amateur produced a T-5 finish, is under par and within striking distance.
So what is it about this event that brings out the best in these same guys year after year? Is it the course? The atmosphere? The booze-fueled record crowds? The answer isn’t so simple.
Watson took a tactical approach.
“If you can hit the fairways ... you can always score. You can always hit the center of the green. … You’re hitting scoring clubs [into the greens], and with weather like this, it makes the course just a little bit easier,” he said. As for how the atmosphere plays into his strategy, Watson went right to the 16th hole. "You know it’s a club less," he said, "'cause you’re just jacked up, so you just have to plan on that.”
For others like Fowler, it’s a combination of factors.
“Little bit of everything. I’ve played well in the desert since I was a junior golfer. Being here, I like the golf course. It’s fun to play. If you get it going and drive it well you can make a lot of birdies,” he said. “The energy here, the crowds, the amount of people that come out, especially tomorrow and Saturday, it’s fun.”
In Koepka's case, it's all about the layout.
“Some golf courses just really fit your eye, especially off the tee and even on the greens reading some putts … the more you play it the more familiar you get with it. It’s a good place for me to come,” he said. “It’s a fun week, it’s something I look forward to every year. It’s special.”
Rahm, the hometown favorite and Arizona State alum, feeds off the fans.
“It’s a lot different than having people that are not with me. It’s always helpful,” he said. “It’s great when you hit a shot, and even if you’re not happy with it, when people clap for you, they appreciate it, it always brings you up.”
And then there’s the 24-year-old Japanese phenom, Matsuyama, who has been on a tear since late last year and calls this event his favorite stop on Tour. He just doesn't quite know why.
“I have had such good success here and played well here. … I wish I knew why I play well here."
Golf is a funny game. It comes and goes on a whim. But for whatever reason, the same names consistently find their top form year after year at Scottsdale.