Van Cynical Mailbag

Course Changes Won't Tame Party -- or Players -- at Phoenix Open

Tour Confidential: Should the U.S. Open Copy the Phoenix Open?
With arguably golf's most fun tournament coming up this week, our panel discusses how events like the Waste Management Open can -- or cannot -- be duplicated.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale has retired the trophy as Golf’s Loudest, Rowdiest Hole. What’s it like to play there when the grandstands that surround the hole are empty of fans?

Boring.

That said, I could still practically hear the boos when I missed the green left and my tee shot ended up in an awkward spot in the left bunker, from where I was destined to make no better than double bogey.

I was playing in the Scottsdale Open, a two-man amateur tournament a few weeks ago. It was a best-ball format so after I skied my bunker shot over the green to the base of the grandstands on the other side, it was going to be my partner’s hole. I went for the heroic flop shot -- never a good idea if you’re from the frozen north and your game is rustier than a ’59 Thunderbird in the Honduras. That one hit near the pin and rolled back off the left side of the green. My partner secured the bogey we needed and I was able to pick up.

My handicap card says I’m close to a scratch player but reality says, not in January.

The Scottsdale Open was a riot of fun for a couple of reasons.

One, who doesn’t love an excuse to visit Scottsdale in January, especially if you’re a resident of Pittsburgh? Hey, that sky’s blue. Is it always like that? Wow.

Two, the Open had a stellar lineup of courses. The opening round was at Troon North’s Monument Course, which I like more every time I play it. The second round was at TPC Scottsdale, which gave me a sneak preview of the $15 million in course changes that will be in play for this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. The third round was at Grayhawk’s Raptor Course, where lots of deep, gaping bunkers make you feel like an honorary member of the Foreign Legion. Three good, tough tracks. Three, it’s always fun to compete and best-ball is almost as low-stress as a scramble. So you’re screwing up? No big deal. Take it, partner.

Four, Scottsdale is loaded with great lodgings and dining. I scored a two-story bedroom at the art deco Valley Ho Hotel -- I think I got President Obama’s room by mistake -- and had a $14 hamburger in Zuzu, the hotel dining area, that was the best hamburger I’ve had since a Republican was President. I had a sunset view of the mountains and a glorious pool at the swank Four Seasons Resort for two nights, plus a close-up look of the ice skating rink that was still up and running at the Fairmount Princess, which apparently had a blooming extravaganza of Christmas decorations for the holidays. The Princess is one of the coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. With that kind of lineup, and each resort has all-star dining, let’s just say I was badly overserved.

Back to the changes at TPC Scottsdale. First, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the old layout that needed changing. Tom Weiskopf oversaw the redesign and to be honest, only a few holes are seriously different.

One change that’s sure to be controversial at this week’s Phoenix Open is the green at the par-5 3rd hole. Weiskopf put a sharp tier in the back third of the green, creating a back ledge and a would-be Maginot Line slope to defend it. That’s a pretty mean slope. I hit 8-iron in for my third shot to a pin that was, of course, back right behind the tier. My ball landed on the face of the tier and shot left, like out of a gun, and went off the left side of the green. From there, it’s a difficult pitch because you still have to land it beyond the tier’s slope and there is precious little room to do it in. A Tour player could do it but Phil Mickelson was nowhere in sight so I had to play it out the left to be safe and then miss a 15-footer and make bogey.

The tier will certainly help defend the hole against the pros, many of whom can reach it in two, but I look forward to the whining when what happened to me starts happening to them. I predict players will give that new green a thumbs-down.

The 4th hole was a short, downhill par-3 that plays almost into the backyard of the Fairmount Princess. It’s still short but it’s not downhill anymore and a large bunker interferes with the view of the green from the tee. The hole is probably a little stronger now, but losing a clear view of the putting surface is not going to be popular with players, either.

The other big change is the 14th hole. It was a long dogleg left. Now it’s a super-long dogleg left, guarded by a posse of bunkers on the left corner, and the green has been raised to make the second shot feel like an uphill shot. For amateurs, this is now the nastiest hole on the course no matter what tee they play from. The length won’t faze the Tour players, but any drive into the rough on this hole will mean a likely bogey.

One other key improvement was at the 18th, where Weiskopf extended a bunker on the far side of the lake down the left side. He added some grassy mounds to the bunker, a la the Church Pew Bunkers of Oakmont, so that will keep the big knockers from just blasting a drive directly over the lake toward the green. They’ll have to play to the fairway, the way the hole was intended. So Weiskopf definitely put some teeth into the finishing hole, which used to be a nail-biter but had turned into a 3-wood, wedge hole for a lot of players.

At the 18th now, you’re more likely to see somebody lose the tournament with a bogey or double than to see somebody win it with a birdie.

The other change Weiskopf made was to put a different kind of sand in the greenside bunkers -- better for bunker shots. The sand is a bright white color, however, which contrasts with the bleached tan of the desert. After my experience at the 16th, I can vouch for the fact that if you go into one of those white bunkers without sunglasses on, you’re going to be hitting blind.

Ultimately, every player plays the same the course so the changes won’t make a big difference. Overall, though, I’d say the TPC Scottsdale doesn’t favor a big hitter quite as much as it did before Weiskopf’s finger-painting. We’ll see this week, when those stands at the 16th won’t be empty or quiet or definitely not boring.

Meanwhile, let’s go to the Van Cynical Mailbag, where questions are always under-inflated:

Sickle cell, What’s the upside for Tiger to play Phoenix this week? Is he trying to rehab his image?
--Jason Sipes via Twitter

Tiger needs reps, Sipeswinder, and Phoenix is a big, sprawling course where he can spray the ball a bit. He knows Phoenix is used to big, rowdy crowds and can handle his security needs. Also, he can walk off course Sunday and go right to the Super Bowl, if he so chooses. I’m pretty sure he can score tickets. His significant other knows people.

Van Cynical, If you could recreate the 16th hole atmosphere from Phoenix on any other hole during the season, where would it be?
--The Bogey Train via Twitter

The 12th hole at Augusta National in Amen Corner would be an interesting place to try it, if only for the novelty of putting fans in stands all the way around the hole. Currently, fans can only watch from the tee and vaguely see if anyone makes a putt 170 yards away. It’s all too sterile. Plenty of room for stands at least down the right, and a natural hillside behind the green. And the way that crowd noise echoes through the “cathedral of pines,” it would be something else. Never, ever happen, of course. It doesn’t fit the Masters and its prim-and-proper style. But we can dream.

Van Cyclical, Who’s a better golfer, you or Robert Lusetich?
--Bob Estes via Twitter

Well, I qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur for a second time last year, winning a 30-man qualifier for one spot. I made it to match play and lost a close match against a former two-time U.S. Mid-Am champ who had just turned 55 and was playing his first Senior Am. I also won my club championship medal-play title for a third time, which isn’t bad for a senior. I don’t know how the Aussie’s game is these days, but I’m not getting better, I’m getting older. If you insist on an answer, I’ll still take me.

Van the Man Cynical, With all these U.S. young guns like Justin Thomas and, ahem, Mike Van Sickle, we may win a Ryder Cup in my lifetime. What say you?
--Chad Rucker via Twitter

Young Thomas does, indeed, look sharp. And there’s Fowler and Reed and Spieth and others. Mike Van Sickle of the Web.com tour hasn’t reached that level yet. I looped for him in the Monday qualifier for Phoenix and he came up short but one of these days… The European team is deeper in talent than the U.S., especially at the top with Tiger and Dustin Johnson absent. The U.S. will win again, sooner or later, especially if the PGA of America will get out of the way.

Sickle, What’s the closest thing to the Patrtiots and DeflateGate that golf has ever had?
--KirbyL via email

Tiger at the Masters and the flap about his incorrect drop and why he wasn’t disqualified for signing a wrong score would be right up there. Or maybe when Ben Hogan had the GB&I team’s irons checked for illegal grooves -- and several were found -- in a long-ago Ryder Cup. Or how about when somebody stole PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem’s strawberries and then moved his cheese?

Why do you think Tiger Woods added the Waste Management Phoenix Open to his schedule this year? Join the conversation in the comments section below.

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