They come out in droves for the WM Phoenix Open, which hosts more than 700,000 spectators annually and close to 200,000 for Saturday’s third round alone. This year, the stakes are even higher in the PGA TOUR’s most raucous environment. In addition to a Sunday finish just hours before and miles from the Super Bowl, this year’s WM Phoenix Open is a designated event with a star-studded field competing for a $20 million purse. The winner will earn $3.6 million.
Here are five things to know about TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, which has been the tournament’s venue since 1987.
1. AN ODE TO THE HOHOKAM
That’s the name of the Native American people who created a network of canals here more than 500 years ago, their engineered effort to bring agricultural life to the desert. Now many of those same watercourses form part of the 336-mile Central Arizona Project, which also borders the Stadium Course’s 15th, 16th and 17th holes.
The life brought to this arid ground has been thriving of late. In 1960, Scottsdale’s population was only 10,000. Now it’s 250,000. Without that canal connecting metro Phoenix (and 80% of the state’s people) with the Colorado River, there would be no lush, green turfgrass for the many courses that have helped make the region a booming resort destination.
TPC Scottsdale, the sixth club built in the TPC network, is at the center of that, geographically and figuratively, with 43,000 rounds notched on the Stadium Course last year and 57,000 on its adjacent Champions Course.
2. IT’S GOT HISTORY
The WM Phoenix Open is one of the PGA TOUR’s oldest events, dating to 1933. It’s been played continuously since 1944 and landed at its current TPC Scottsdale site in 1987, where it has grown into the most well-attended golf event in the world. It’s also arguably the cleanest, because tournament sponsor Waste Management, which took over the event in 2010, has been committed to cleaning up and recycling all of the trash from the grounds – including all of those beer cups.
The par-71 course, measuring 7,354 yards, has proven vulnerable to hot streaks – none more impressive than Mark Calcavecchia’s wins in 1989, 1992 and 2001 by seven, five and eight strokes, respectively. But given the compression of talent on the PGA TOUR, the course has also seen a recent trend toward nail-biting finishes, including sudden-death playoffs in five of the last seven events. He shot 65-60-64 to tie the TOUR record for lowest score in a tournament’s opening 54 holes (Justin Thomas, at the 2017 Sony Open in Hawaii, and Steve Stricker, at the 2010 John Deere Classic, have since lowered the mark by a stroke). Calcavecchia closed with a 67 to then set the TOUR’s 72-hole scoring record (256, -28).
“I just don’t see how I could top this,” Calcavecchia said after winning the 11th of his 13 PGA TOUR titles. His record has since been bettered three times. Justin Thomas now holds the mark with his 27-under 253 at the 2017 Sony Open.
3. OCEAN’S 11TH
With an average score of 4.24 at last year’s WM Phoenix Open, the 484-yard, par-4 11th hole is by far the hardest on the course. It doesn’t get much airtime, but it certainly gets the attention of players. That’s because it requires the most demanding tee shot of the round. It’s called a “reverse camber” hole, which means it doglegs one way while sloping the other. In this case the hole turns modestly to the right while the ground slopes from right to left – toward a flanking pond.
Reverse camber means that gravity and topography are working against the golfers, who face water left, trees right, and a vertical slope of 4-5 feet from the high-side (right) to the low-side (left). The tendency in fighting a draw here is to over-compensate and block it right off the tee. Even elite players get into trouble when they have to steer a shot, especially on the drive.
This hole also was the site of a unique ruling that led to a recent change in the Rules of Golf. Rickie Fowler won the 2019 WM Phoenix Open despite making triple-bogey in the final round. After taking a drop from the water, his ball rolled back into the penalty area while he was surveying his next shot. This necessitated another drop and penalty stroke. That rule was changed in 2023, however. Under the new rule, Fowler would not have been penalized for his ball rolling back into the water after he had taken a drop. He would have been allowed to replace his ball without penalty.
4. THE RIVETING 17TH
The short par-3 16th and its stadium setting gets all that attention, but don’t let that overshadow the next hole, which adds another element to a thrilling finish. The 332-yard 17th hole has a lot going on, all of it evident from the tee. It’s a terrific place for spectators to watch the action because anything can happen. In short, the hole makes the best players in the world think. The green is readily reachable for most, but a slight tug left brings water into play, as we saw from Sahith Theegala as he was pursuing his first PGA TOUR title in 2022. A slight push and the ball will trickle into a fairway bunker or steep grass swale that present one of the hardest shots in golf, a medium-range pitch to a green guarded by water not only left but also long.
The smart play is to leave it just short and follow up with a chip shot, but even that requires properly navigating a small bunker in the center of the fairway that torments those seeking to play safe. There is a lot going on in the form of a green so artfully cut that it seems the approaching ball is always moving away from the center of it. The 47-yard-long putting surface also features a narrow tier on the back-left that is squeezed between sand and water. The subtle shot-making skills required here evoke the nature of classic links golf. The hole draws inspiration from the 12th hole at St. Andrews, fitting because the course architect, Tom Weiskopf, was a past champion of The Open (winning in 1973 at Royal Troon.).
5. A SPECIAL SHOWCASE
Ultimately, the appeal of watching golf at TPC Scottsdale is simply the pure power and consistency of the players treading upon perfectly manicured, overseeded fairways. The course was renovated in 2014, only enhancing its ability to recognize the best players. Seven of the past eight winners of the WM Phoenix Open are major champions; the lone exception in that span is Rickie Fowler, winner of the 2015 PLAYERS.
There’s science behind the distances they achieve here at an average elevation on the course of 1,530 feet above sea level.
At an industry-standard reference point of 1.7% yards gained per 1,000 feet of elevation, they benefit from the thinner air to the tune of precisely 2.6%. That means an additional 7.5 yards per 300-yard drive, plus the bonus roll from these traditionally firm, fast-running fairways. The data confirm this.
The average PGA TOUR drive traveled 299.8 yards last season. Add in the elevation premium and the effect of close-cropped, dry fairways and the average drive spanned 313.6 yards at last year’s WM Phoenix Open. The numbers don’t lie. These guys are good, and they are especially fun to watch at TPC Scottsdale.