<
>

Weekly 18: At a party in the desert, a golf tournament broke out

A Philadelphia Eagles fan enjoyed pre-Super Bowl festivities at the Phoenix Open's 16th hole Sunday. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Amid the party at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a golf tournament broke out.

While much of America was preparing for the Super Bowl, Gary Woodland closed out his own Super Sunday, defeating Chez Reavie on the first playoff hole.

I'll get to that victory, but this week's edition of the Weekly 18 begins with the frenzy of the weekend, one which had more to do with what was going on outside the ropes than inside them.

1. Mayhem. Chaos. Pandemonium. Choose your favorite synonym, as they each aptly describe the annual scene at TPC Scottsdale. With crowds lining up at 4 a.m. to enter the front gates and start imbibing their day away, the tournament is more Lollapalooza than Augusta. And the 16th hole is the main stage, the proverbial lion's den where anything goes. Some love the scene, seeing it as a refreshing departure from golf's usual stoic nature; some hate the scene, seeing it as gimmicky revelry for a game steeped in purity. Here's one thing we can all agree upon: It ain't changing anytime soon. The raucous galleries turn this event into must-see TV for those who don't usually spend their weekends on the couch entrenched in coverage. In a 49-tournament season, the best thing a non-major can do for self-preservation is distinguish itself from the pack -- and the WMPO has done that better than any other.

2. I feel the same way about the 16th hole as I do about the format for the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship and the reimagined Zurich Classic: Once a year is perfect and helps differentiate these tournaments from their weekly brethren. Those who watched the party this week and wished for a regular rotation of rowdy, beer-soaked events are missing the point. Less is more. If this type of atmosphere became more popular at other tournaments, it would quickly lose its uniqueness.

3. Attendance figures for golf tournaments are the ultimate inexact science, so we should take Saturday's reported record-breaking number of 216,818 with a few grains of salt. But that shouldn't minimize the main takeaway: There were a whole lot of people at TPC Scottsdale. Way more, in fact, just in that one day, than most tournaments will have over an entire week combined. Even if only a minority percentage cared much about the actual proceedings inside the ropes, bringing the game to the masses should be considered a win every single time.

4. That's all the good stuff. But of course, it comes with some weighty negatives, too. There's a fine line between huge crowds respectfully enjoying the tournament and being discourteous to the guys trying to win it -- and as you can imagine, that line is being crossed now more than ever. As one player texted me after Saturday's third round: "It's gotten way more out of control the last couple of years." From spectators yelling while players are putting to streaking across fairways and into bunkers, the party becomes a major buzzkill when the patrons become the story.

5. I didn't cover the tournament this year, but I've been on-site for the WMPO about 8-10 times over the years. I remember one final group on a Saturday huffing off the course steaming mad after fans rained beer and fruit onto them from above. Players love competing in front of a massive audience; most of them insist that it's fun. But if the tourney loses any more decorum, it also might start losing some big-name players. That's a lose-lose all around.

6. On to the actual leaderboard itself, as Woodland won for only the third time in his career. I write "only" because it's always surprised me that he doesn't win more often. Forget the fact that he's one of the longer hitters around, Woodland carries himself in a way that exudes confidence, chest puffed out and quick with a wink, as if he perpetually knows something that you don't. Some guys just look the part of a star, and he's always owned that quality. Maybe this victory will help springboard his game to that level, too.

7. So, what's held Woodland back from being that star in the past? Well, he's not known as the most proficient putter, a sticking point which has kept him from winning more and from ever finishing in the top 10 in two dozen major appearances. He said after the victory that spending some time recently with noted putting maven Brad Faxon has helped him on the greens. This week, his strokes gained tee-to-green was an enviable second in the field, and his strokes gained putting ranked an estimable 16th. That's a strong combination.

8. Woodland has also dealt with personal tragedy over the past year. His wife, Gabby, was pregnant with twins -- a boy and a girl. Complications with the pregnancy resulted in the loss of their daughter after 18 weeks last March. The boy, Jaxson, who was born in June and spent 40 days in a neonatal intensive care unit, is now seven-and-a-half months old and was there to watch the end of his dad's win on Sunday. "He's a miracle," Woodland said. "It puts it in perspective. It was obviously a long year for us. ... It's hard right now for me to grasp it, but it's emotional."

9. It's way too early to start talking about which players are inside the threshold of making the Ryder Cup team ... and yet, I'm going to do it anyway. That's because I've always believed Woodland would thrive in that type of environment. Unlike many of his peers, he grew up competing in team sports, playing basketball at the collegiate level. And he's now obviously shown he can succeed in front of big crowds. At seventh on the current list, Woodland still has plenty of work ahead to make the U.S. team, but he could be a useful asset in Paris.

10. Reavie might be the anti-Woodland. Basically, a guy who doesn't wow anyone with distance off the tee, but continues to fly under the radar despite his solid record. He's now finished in the top-25 in seven of eight starts this year, 11 of his past 14 overall, and hasn't missed a cut in nine months. His composure down the stretch was impressive for a player whose lone PGA Tour title came a decade ago, especially that 21-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to force a playoff.

11. I really liked this from Reavie after the round: "I've been playing solid, seems every week. I just need more experiences like this and sooner or later I'll hold the trophy." Great way to view things after a playoff loss.

12. It's not time to sound the alarms for Jordan Spieth. Not even close. But his start to 2018 probably isn't what he envisioned, either. Spieth finished ninth (in a limited field) at Kapalua and T-18 at Waialae, lower results than each of his final half-dozen outings of last year. He followed those with an MC in Phoenix, but the silver lining is that he won't have time to dwell on it. Expect Spieth to look a little more, well, Spieth-like at Pebble Beach, where he'll defend his title this week.

13. It says something that this was only Rickie Fowler's second-most disheartening defeat at this tournament in the past three years. Back in 2016, he lost in a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama, then became emotional about it in his post-round interview. This time, he bogeyed three of his last four holes to post a final-round 73 and drop from 54-hole leader to outside the top-10. I still think this is going to be a big year for Fowler, one in which he finally gets that major monkey off his back. I also believe that tough losses should be considered a bigger positive for players than failing to even get into that position. Gotta wonder whether Rickie will soon be sitting in his winner's interview, speaking about what he learned from those mistakes down the stretch in Phoenix.

14. We're now going on five years since Phil Mickelson's last victory -- a statistic he knows all too well. He gave himself yet another chance on Sunday, posting birdies on 15, 16 and 17 before a double-bogey on the last dropped him into a share of fifth place. I don't know when Lefty will win again, but I do know this much: He loves being a part of golf history. At 47, he's a year older than Jack Nicklaus was in 1986 when he became the oldest Masters champion. For a guy with few benchmarks left to clear -- not to mention one who clearly loves Augusta National -- don't be surprised if he saves his best stuff for April.

15. Nothing against Woodland and Reavie, but a Fowler-Mickelson playoff at least would've kept some Super Bowl parties from watching the pre-game show.

16. In last week's W18, I wrote about the outside-the-box thinking of the Web.com Tour concluding the first two events of the season on Tuesday and Wednesday in a window that offered no competition. I'm not sure such a maneuver is warranted on the PGA Tour, but if the powers-that-be ever wanted to experiment, the Waste Management would be a perfect guinea pig. The tournament attendance and ratings are typically much larger on Saturday than Sunday, and finishing one day earlier would eliminate going up against the early part of Super Bowl Sunday.

17. Last week, 22-year-old Haotong Li of China claimed his second career European Tour title. This week, 21-year-old Shubhankar Sharma also won his second on that circuit, thanks to a brilliant final-round 62 in Malaysia. "The last two months have changed my life," Sharma said afterward, in reference to those two victories. Meanwhile, the last two weeks have shown just how quickly the game is changing at some of its most elite levels.

18. I mean, that's not exactly an unsubtle two-week wake-up call for those who still believe golf is failing to grow and progress. Young 20-somethings from non-traditional golf nations winning in back-to-back weeks should be Exhibits 1A and 1B of the game's current global reach.