Thursday's first round of the WM Phoenix Open was as advertised. The best field of the year lived up to its billing, and TPC Scottsdale rocked, but perhaps not in the way you expected.
Sahith Theegala held the lead at 7 under Thursday when play was suspended due to darkness while he was on his 17th hole of the day. Just behind him is K.H. Lee, and then a wave of major winners, including Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen and Jon Rahm. Let's take a look at what Theegala and Co. did on Thursday and what else happened at one of the best events of the first quarter of the year.
Theegala played the back nine (where he started his round) in 5-under 31 and is clean on the front side through seven holes there, as well. He'll pick his first round back up early Friday and follow it up with Round 2. The encouraging thing for Theegala is that he didn't putt all that well (1.01 strokes gained), which means he's hitting the crap out of the ball on what was a tough golf course (more on that below).
Theegala was a sponsor exemption this week, and he's taking advantage of it so far.
"A tournament like this, I literally had no expectations coming in because, first of all, I didn't even know I was playing until 12 days ago or whatever that was," Theegala said. "It feels like a free roll because I shouldn't be here. I think maybe two guys from the Korn Ferry category got in as alternates, so I wasn't even planning on being here. So the fact that I'm here, I think we had a pretty good mindset of just trying to enjoy the week as much as possible and it's been good so far the first four days."
Theegala is a former amateur star at Pepperdine, where he won the 2020 Haskins Award (college golf's version of the Heisman Trophy), the Jack Nicklaus Award and the Ben Hogan Award, but his best-ever PGA Tour finish is a T8 at the Sanderson Farms last fall. This is a monstrous spot for him going into the last three days, and I'm fascinated to see how he responds to it.
2nd: K.H. Lee (-6)
T3: Brooks Koepka, Adam Hadwin, Harry Higgs, Scott Stallings (-5)
T7: Xander Schauffele, Louis Oosthuizen, Charley Hoffman, Alex Noren, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson, Stewart Cink, Kevin Kisner, Billy Horschel (-4)
How about that crew at T7?! Including Koepka, there are six major winners in the top 17 after 18 holes, though it's Koepka who is the only four-time (or even three-time) major champion and also the defending champion at this tournament. He had some interesting comments after his round.
"I've been playing good for a while, so I think everybody on my team expected this," he said.
He has three missed cuts in his last five events and doesn't have a top 10 at an event larger than 20 golfers since the Open Championship last summer. However, he did note that he was healthy for the first time in a long time, and he'll benefit from a fast, firm course over the next 54.
1. Fast and firm: Balls were bouncing all over the place at TPC Scottsdale on Thursday as a fast, firm golf course stood up a bit in a way TPC courses don't normally stand up. It's nuanced, but I thought this was instructive that you don't have to go to one of the elite architectural courses in the world to give the best players a test. You just need to make it fast and firm and let the best players hit the best shots.
2. J.T. flushing: Justin Thomas hit some astonishing shots down the stretch. He led the field in strokes gained on approach shots and absolutely flushed his long irons on the second nine. The putter is still an issue, but if he hits it like this all weekend, the putter is not going to matter.
3. Pin on No. 17: The back left pin on No. 17 is awesome. It's a short par-4 playing around 350 yards, and nobody really knows how to attack it. To wit: Jon Rahm had an eagle putt and made a 4 while Rickie Fowler came up well short and made a 2 when he chipped in. No. 17 is one of the most fun holes of the entire season on the PGA Tour, and we got the full experience on Thursday in Round 1.
Quote of the day
"I mean, that's embarrassing to be 20th, I feel like. A lot of it has to do with injury, man. I've been hurt, on the sidelines, not playing, playing through injury, you can't compete with guys out here. It's nice to be somewhat healthy and get out here and I mean I'm not too worried about it, it will bounce back up" -- Koepka
Golf is better when Koepka contends, not just because he's in contention but because he's one of the best quotes in the sport.
One thing I loved today
Caddies at the WM Phoenix Open wear fluorescent, reflective caddie bibs that I believe are supposed to be a nod to folks in charge of trash disposal. I had one garbage man tweet at me that he appreciated the nod. What a world. What a sport!
Another thing I loved today
Harry Higgs throwing his putter in the air and raising his arms, all before his ball fell in the hole on No. 16 and the entire grandstands went berserk.
One thing to watch tomorrow
We might have a "Jon Rahm at Memorial" situation on our hands with Xander Schauffele. His caddie went down with COVID-19 this week, which means Schauffele -- who shot 4-under 68 on Thursday -- will be tested throughout the rest of the event. Hopefully he'll continue to test negative, but it's something to keep an eye on over the next few days.
"Got off to a good start for this tournament, so I got to test tomorrow morning and hope that I don't end up like Jon Rahm at the Memorial," said Schauffele. "So hopefully I'm fine"
"Austin was with me at the house and he was downstairs," he added. "He called me about 6 a.m. and he said he wasn't feeling good so he stayed in our room. We both tested. I was negative. He was positive. So kind of just him and his wife packed everything up and kind of just left the house right away. We literally had every fan and window open in the place. I don't know what else to really do."
I agree with this from Sean Zak. Every word of it.
I would pay good money for an ESPN+ Spieth Feed. Every shot, all season long. All Spieth.— Sean Zak (@Sean_Zak) February 10, 2022
Craziest ShotLink stat
Adam Schenk lost over 10 strokes to the field on Thursday. Ten! He lost seven alone from tee to green and made six bogeys and two doubles on the day for an 81.
New odds and pick
- Jon Rahm: 9/2
- Justin Thomas: 7-1
- Patrick Cantlay: 10-1
- Brooks Koepka: 11-1
- Xander Schauffele: 14-1
- Hideki Matsuyama: 14-1
Theegala is 20-1, and Lee is 22-1 at Caesars Sportsbook, mostly because they're currently surrounded by some of the best players on the planet. Rahm is in perfect position (which he almost always is) to win his first of the year (and just his second in the last two years), but he's come up futile from better spots than this one. J.T. hit the hell out of the ball, Cantlay is playing his first Phoenix Open, and we covered what's ahead for Koepka and Schauffele. If I had to pick somebody based on these numbers, I would probably go Matsuyama at 14-1. He crushes at this course, hit the ball very well on Thursday and has actually gotten hot with the putter multiple times this year, including Thursday (which will be a problem for the field if it continues).