SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Waste Management Phoenix Open is always a wild party so it was fitting and appropriate that the golf tournament portion of the program featured a wild finish.
How wild was the party? Wilder than you think. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee hosted the NBC Sports Group Super Front Presentation for bigwigs and their golf and football guests Saturday night at the super-swank Phoenician Hotel. The on-stage celebrity guests included golfers Billy Horschel and Brandt Snedeker. Chamblee, as emcee, asked Horschel for the strangest thing he’d ever seen at the infamous par-3 16th hole.
“Not seen,” Horschel replied, “heard. I heard that 19 people were arrested last year for having sex under the stands at 16.”
Chamblee waited for the riotous laughter to die, then asked the room, “Is anyone else concerned about that being an odd number?”
The place went up for grabs, much like The Colosseum, as the 16th is now known, did on Saturday when Francesco Molinari dunked a hole-in-one.
The Phoenix Open was up for grabs, too, as it went down to the wire with a four-way tie over the closing holes. It was tense, it was wired and it had some wild and unusual shots.
The one we’ll all remember from this Phoenix Open was a 50-foot putt from off the front of the 15th green that rolled up to the flagstick, kissed it and dropped for an eagle to vault Brooks Koepka temporarily into the lead.
“I’d been leaving putts short all day,” Koepka said later. “I told my caddie, I’m finally gonna get one there. I just gave it a whack and it went in.”
He got the lead for good two holes later when co-leader Martin Laird, a steady Scot who has relocated to Scottsdale, three-putted from 50 feet at the devilish 17th green for bogey.
There was a lot more drama than that, putts that could’ve, should’ve or wish-they-would’ve gone in, but the last gasp was an 18-foot birdie putt by Hideki Matsuyama at the 18th green. He needed to make it to tie Koepka but lost the putt to the right immediately and it never had a chance.
Koepka, who played his way onto the American golf scene last summer with a good showing at Pinehurst during the U.S. Open, is a full-fledged star now. He’s 24, he’s big, he smashes drives a mile, he got his first big pro win last year in the Turkish Airlines Open with a closing 63, he was already going to the Masters before this win, he played college golf at Florida State and you can add him to the list of young guns who are replacing the PGA Tour’s middle-aged guns even as you read this.
If you don’t believe that, just check out the Phoenix leaderboard. Matsuyama, maybe the best iron player on tour, won the Memorial Tournament last year and looks like he has the potential to be Japan’s first major championship winner. He’s only 22. Jordan Spieth, 21, already a wunderkind, finished seventh.
Jon Rahm, 21, a Spaniard who’s still attending Arizona State University here, is 6’2 and another basher in the mold of Koepka. He finished in a tie for fifth.
Also in contention at one time during the week were future stars such as Robert Streb and Daniel Berger, who tied for 10th; Canadian Graham DeLaet, who tied for seventh; Russell Knox, 15th; and Keegan Bradley and Justin Thomas at 17th.
That’s not even mentioning the other obvious sub-30 names such as Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Horschel, Webb Simpson and the rest.
Even CBS, which was late to acknowledge Koepka as a serious contender until he holed that eagle putt at 15, having failed to show his drive or his approach shot there even though he was one shot back — is getting on the youth movement bandwagon.
“There’s a paradigm shift happening out here on tour,” CBS analyst Gary McCord. “I’ve never seen so many young guys who are so good.”
Sunday’s wind-up showed how an exciting finish can make up for a lack of household names — mainly Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who had missed the cut.
This Open was a good show from the very first hole in the last round, when 54-hole leader Laird stuffed it to two feet from the left rough, a gimme birdie. Then Matsuyama holed a wedge shot from 129 yards for an eagle 2. It was game on, all day.
Texan Ryan Palmer played his way into the mix, too, and had near misses on the closing holes with putts that would have gotten him to 15 under and a possible playoff. They burned the edges dramatically but didn’t drop. Even at the 17th, where Palmer badly yanked his drive, which went so far left that it came to rest left of the pond. His 25-footer scare the cup’s edge, prompting Palmer to drop to a squat, thinking he’d holed it.
Matsuyama hit an impressive display of shots, most of them at the flags. At the par-5 13th, he sent a 3-wood that landed near the pin and watched it bound well over the green. He made a brilliant pitch to two feet for a birdie that got him a share of the lead.
Matsuyama lost the stroke back on the next hole, however, when he three-putted from above the hole, looking a little shaky on a four-footer for par. He didn’t make another birdie, including the one at the last.
Laird didn’t make much happen after the opening hole. After 13 straight pars, he made an easy birdie at the par-5 15th.
Two mistakes cost Laird. He lost his 3-wood way right at the drivable par-4 17th. He managed a nice recovery from the desert to the middle of the green, the best he could hope for, but he still had a 50-footer that picked up speed near the cup. He left it eight feet short and then badly missed that par putt. That was a shocker, considering Laird had driven it into the pond off the tee at the par-5 13th and drained a 20-footer to save a miraculous par a few holes earlier.
Laird was one behind Koepka at the 18th but snap-hooked his tee shot way, way, way into the middle of the lake and was done.
It went down to the 18th but Koepka crushed a drive down the middle, 331 yards, and wedged to 20 feet. He nearly closed it out right there, narrowly missing his birdie putt. That left it to Matsuyama, who missed.
The wild finish was highlighted by that 17th hole. The final threesome played it completely differently — Laird, way right, up on a hill in the desert; Matsuyama, just short of the green but facing a difficult 40-yard pitch; and Koepka, whose 3-wood ran over the green and was inches away from going into the water. In fact, Koepka’s ball came to rest on the red hazard line.
“I thought it was in the water when it disappeared over the green,” he admitted. “Then one of the cameramen said it stayed up. I don’t know how.”
Koepka hit a heavy pitch shot onto the green, leaving it short. Then all three missed crucial putts that could have changed the situation going to 18.
Instead, all Koepka needed was a par to hang on for the win. His name will be better known now after this big win. On the first tee Sunday, his name was announced as, “Brooks Cupcake.” At least, that’s how it sounded.
Koepka laughed about that. “Nobody knows how to pronounce it,” he said. “That guy wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last.”
A PGA Tour win was the top priority on Koepka’s list for 2015. He played his way onto the tour via Europe, first with a win on the Challenge Tour and then with that European Tour win last year in Turkey.
He’s here to stay, now, and he feels like that detour he made to get here was a blessing in disguise. It made him a better player and it made him work harder to get here.
Even though it was a wild week, he savored it.
“This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Koepka said of the tournament as he sat next to his Thunderbird-designed trophy. “The fans are unbelievable.”
The 16th hole saw an ace last week and the 18th hole saw the birth of a star.
Both were, pardon the pun, arresting developments.
Which under-25 player on the PGA Tour has the brightest future? Join the conversation in the comments section below.