Compared to what we’ve had since the COVID-19 restart last June, the scene on Thursday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was as electric as it gets. Of course, it’s nowhere near as electric as it would get at TPC Scottsdale during a normal season, but we’ll take what we can get this time.
And so will the players, many of whom could not have looked more thrilled to hear the claps, cheers and, yes, even the boos at the famed par-3 16th. We have a long way to go to get fully back, but the first round of the WMPO was a nice start. Here are four takeaways from Day 1 in the Arizona desert.
‘Silly mistakes’ cost Brooks Koepka a low opening round
Normally, three-under 68s on Thursday are hardly anything to celebrate for a player of Brooks Koepka’s caliber, especially when the leaders (Matthew NeSmith and Mark Hubbard) are at eight under. But, and this may be hard to believe, Koepka’s opening 68 at TPC Scottsdale was his first sub-70 round since Saturday at the Masters in November, and his first sub-69 round since Sunday at the Houston Open a week earlier. Is he going to pop bottles tonight? No, but coming off his first stretch of three consecutive missed cuts in his career, it was understandably encouraging.
“I felt like I’ve been doing the same things I’ve been doing. I putted a little better, made a few changes in that. It’s working,” said Koepka, who made 149 feet of putts on Thursday, his most in a single round since 2018, per 15th Club’s Justin Ray. “I’m hitting it really well. Just hit it terrible on No. 2 and I ended up in the worst place possible.”
Koepka was referring to a pulled drive at the par-4 second, where he had to take a drop, eventually making double. A few holes later, he three-putted from 38 feet at the par-4 sixth (his 15th). But neither of those mistakes could compete with what he did on his eighth hole, the short par-4 17th. After reaching four under on the day, Koepka drove it just short of the green, leaving him with a short wedge shot in. He proceeded to hit it over the green, his ball finding the water and leading to a bogey.
“Just got to clean up those silly mistakes,” Koepka said. “On 17, the ball probably had a little water on it, so it didn’t have any spin, any check-up on it, but that happens. But you’ve got to avoid the three-putt and the double.
“I’m still confident. No difference,” he added. “I feel like I’ve been playing pretty good for a while. I just haven’t scored well. Sometimes the scoring just isn’t there. But I feel like I’m hitting it the same, so I’m pleased.”
A confident Brooks is a scary Brooks, so long as that confidence doesn’t wade into cocky waters like it did Saturday evening at the PGA Championship in August. There’s plenty of reason to feel good, though. He gained 1.179 strokes on approach and 2.537 putting, the two areas often conducive to success at TPC Scottsdale. Lot of golf to play, of course, but it’s looking like we may get a fully engaged Brooks Koepka week in the desert (apologies to anyone who bet him for the inevitable missed cut on Friday).
Welcome to the Strick show
No, it’s not Ryder Cup week yet and no, this isn’t an article about a PGA Tour Champions event. Steve Stricker, who will turn 54 in 19 days, went out and BALLED on Thursday. The U.S. Ryder Cup captain shot a six-under 65, highlighted by birdies on 16 and 18 to close out his round. Thanks to the strong finish, he was able to match Tom Lehman for the lowest round at TPC Scottsdale by a player older than 50 (per Ray, again, obviously). Even cooler was what my colleague Joel Beall pointed out:
Great stuff from Strick, who gave the perfect quote afterward. “Made some putts, it felt like old Steve Stricker. I am old, but I don’t feel 53 or 54, I still feel like I have game left in me.” Considering he beat Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas’ combined total of four under by two strokes, we’d say he’s right.
Two ‘no names’ lead the way
Just to get out in front of this, “no names” were NBC’s Dan Hicks words, not ours. To be honest, he wasn’t wrong when describing the top of the leader board on Thursday afternoon, where Matthew Nesmith and Mark Hubbard lead the way at eight under. To the casual fan, Nesmith and Hubbard are most definitely no names, and even the most ardent of golf fans probably went to the Google machine to learn a little more about these two late-bloomers. Between them, they have a combined five career top-10s, though all five (two from Nesmith, three from Hubbard) since October 2019. So, both guys are trending nicely toward a breakthrough, but they’ve got some thoroughbreds close behind. Tomorrow, it starts to get real.
Justin Thomas was just about perfect for 16 holes, aaaand it’s gone
Sixteen holes. Sixteen greens in regulation. No bogeys. Four birdies. Justin Thomas was as locked in as ever, save for one water-logged drive on the par-5 15th, which he still parred anyway. In retrospect, though, that may be where it all went wrong. Thomas crushed a 3-wood at the par 5, but it took a bad bounce and rolled all the way into the hazard. From there, he wasn’t quite the same, juicing his tee shot over the flag at 16 with a wedge, then blocking his drive at the 17th, seemingly trying to avoid the left miss. From a fairway bunker, Thomas put his second in a greenside bunker, and from there he blasted one past the flag and, yet again, found the drink. He went on to make triple-bogey 7, then parred 18 to finish with a one-under 70. All that great work to end up seven off the lead. If anybody can erase that deficit, it’s JT, but he’s going to need to be squeaky clean the rest of the way, which is hard to do at this course.