SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The People’s Open is giving the people what they want.
Phil Mickelson’s record-setting week ended early, as Lefty exited stage left after shooting 68-75 to miss the cut Friday at TPC Scottsdale. The 30-time Waste Management Phoenix Open participant – and three-time champion – had Gene Littler’s WMPO record of 107 rounds played in his sights, too, but that will have to wait, as Mickelson is now stuck on 106 for another year.
The party must go on, however, and luckily for fans in the Arizona desert, there is still plenty of star power to get them through until Super Bowl kickoff.
Headlining the weekend show are buddies Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, who are not only sharing a rental home this week but also occupying the top two spots on the leaderboard. Fowler, at 13 under, is one shot clear of Thomas and two ahead of Branden Grace, who made sure his Phoenix Open debut was memorable on Friday with a hole-in-one on the seventh hole.
Fowler has twice finished runner-up at this event, which is both a positive and a negative. The positive is that he excels on this TPC Scottsdale layout. The negative is that he just hasn’t been able to finish the deal, previously entering the weekend here in the top 5 on four occasions and failing to win each time. Just last year, he shot 73 in the final round to finish T-11.
But on the back nine Friday, Fowler looked as good as he ever has. He knocked five approach shots to within 11 feet. Even a pair of misses inside of 7 feet, at Nos. 13 and 14, couldn’t deter Fowler, who actually missed six putts inside of 10 feet in Round 2, from finishing his second-round, 6-under 65 with four straight birdies.
“Rick, when he's playing like this, at a course that he loves like this, he's going to be tough to beat,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ ballstriking has been equally impressive this week as he’s opened with rounds of 64-66. Though for Thomas, his biggest key has been limiting mistakes. A year ago, Thomas double-bogeyed the 16th hole twice and tripled the 15th hole once while finishing a disappointing T-17.
Through 36 holes this week, Thomas has made 13 birdies to just one bogey.
“Getting to play with your buddies, those are the people that you want to lose to the least,” Fowler said. “… Definitely I don't want to have him out in front of me.”
While there’s been plenty of offense from the roomies, Bubba Watson began his tournament playing defense, though it had nothing to do with a title. The former Scottsdale resident initially wasn’t a fan of the 2014 redesign of TPC Scottsdale, saying back then that the only reason he was playing the event was because of his sponsors.
Watson has seemed to have since changed his tune.
“I lived here for nine years, so no matter what people say I actually love Scottsdale very much,” Watson said Thursday.
A day later, he added a 67 to his opening 66 to move just three back. Watson tied for second in his first WMPO start after the redesign but has since failed to finish better than T-40 in his past three tries. But a new driver, new colored golf ball, new putter and new Bryson DeChambeau-taught putting approach could get Watson back on track in the desert.
“My putting has never been in the top 100 on the Tour,” said Watson, who actually was ranked inside the top 100 in strokes gained: putting once, but only once, in the past 10 seasons, “so it's not going to affect me much by trying something new.”
If three of the game’s most recognizable stars aren’t enough to satisfy the appetite, another fan favorite – and two-time winner this season on Tour – Matt Kuchar is sitting T-5 at 10 under and ready to bring a wide smile to the party.
But wait, there’s more on the VIP list: Defending champion Gary Woodland and Arizona State alum Jon Rahm at 7 under, Webb Simpson at 6 under and two-time WMPO winner Hideki Matsuyama at 5 under.
“The way I'm driving the golf ball I think I have a really good chance,” said Woodland, who ranks third in strokes gained off the tee this week.
Oh, and speaking of the long ball, don’t sleep on amateur Matthew Wolff. The Oklahoma State sophomore has the swing, ball speed and swagger to grab anyone’s attention.
And after a 67-70 start in his Tour debut, Wolff is 5 under, fourth in the field in driving distance and T-2 in driving accuracy.
He even has bragging rights over his college coach, Alan Bratton, who Monday-qualified into the Phoenix Open as an amateur for his first Tour start before missing the cut.
“If you ask him, he always tells me I’m miles better than he was,” Wolff said. “But yeah, it’s a cool experience and to make the cut makes it even better.”
Can the young phenom chase down proven Tour winners, though?
“It’s not going to be easy,” Wolff said. “… Obviously, it’s my first start so we’ll see what happens, but for now I have that confidence in myself, and the people around me instill that in me, so I’m going to go out there and give it everything I have.”
If excitement is what you want, the final 36 holes at TPC Scottsdale should deliver. Even without the Phoenix area’s most beloved left-handed son, the Phoenix Open still has plenty of stars left to put on a show.