SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Long the face of the Phoenix Open, Phil Mickelson is skipping the PGA Tour’s biggest party to play in Saudi Araba for a large appearance fee.
Young stars Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas are perfectly content at TPC Scottsdale for the rowdy tournament that opens Thursday.
“I’m excited to be back,” Thomas said. “This is a course that I enjoy. I feel like it sets up well for my game, if I can execute properly.”
Like Mickelson, Rahm starred at nearby Arizona State and has a big following in the area. The Super Bowl week stop in the desert is perennially the best-attended PGA Tour event of the year.
“If not the most, one of the most, one of the best atmospheres in golf,” Rahm said. “It’s unique. There’s nothing quite like it. You have more people in the pro-am day here than a lot of tournaments get all week. … It’s just a fun event, great golf course, always in great shape, so I’m always looking forward to it, especially sleeping in my own bed.”
Rahm, who finished second last week at Torrey Pines, can jump from No. 3 to No. 1 in the world with a victory, provided top-ranked Brooks Koepka finishes out of the top four in Saudi Arabia.
“Actually, I found that out 10 minutes ago,” Rahm said. “I had no idea.”
Thomas remembered his short stay atop the world.
“Walking around, it’s like, ‘I’m better than every single person on this planet in golf,’” said Thomas, now No. 4. “That’s a pretty satisfying feeling.”
Thomas is coming off a two-week break. He opened the year at Kapalua with his second victory of the season, then missed the cut the following week in Honolulu.
“I got a good couple weeks rest and I was able to put some good work in there at the end of last week getting ready for here,” Thomas said. “I feel like when I take two weeks off sometimes I have a hard time getting back into it or get focused or make some sloppy mistakes, so I need to make sure that I don’t do that starting up tomorrow.”
Rahm figures the way to the top is simply to play well.
“As I said many times, being No. 1 in the world, it’s a consequence of good golf,” said the Spanish star, a three-time winner last year on the European Tour. “So, I got to take care of business this week. It’s not going to change my mindset.”
Not that being No. 1 isn’t a big goal.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if my goal wasn’t to be the best,” Rahm said. “It’s as simple as that. I tee it up to win every time, I practice to be the best I can be, and hopefully the best I can be takes me to No. 1 at some point.”
He played with Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps in the pro-am Wednesday.
“I would say he’s way too flexible to play golf,” Rahm said.
Thomas tied for third last year at TPC Scottsdale.
“It’s always in great shape,” Thomas said. “I think that’s something that’s very underrated about this place. It’s obviously a great tournament, a great field, but the course is always tremendous.”
When asked about the rowdy stadium 16th hole, he remembered being booed after four-putting the par 3.
“There’s no sympathy on 16,” Thomas said.
Rahm said he’d take par there every day.
“Honestly, play that hole even par forever, I’ll take it,” Rahm said. “It’s not just the fact that you’re in a semi-stadium, it’s how pumped up you are and how far you can hit the ball. I can’t believe how many times I’ve gone with, ‘I’m going to hit an easy 9,’ and completely just flush it way over the pin just because you can’t control what’s going on.”
U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland was back with Amy Bockerstette in the pro-am, a year after the Special Olympian with Down Syndrome made an inspiring par on the 16th hole.
“We’re in a very unique position on the PGA Tour where we have an opportunity to meet a lot of cool people and spend some time with them and she’s the definition of that,” said Woodland, the 2018 champion. “Last year was very special. It was nice to be here today and spend time with her.”
They were again the crowd favorites on No. 16.
“I asked Amy when we were walking in if she was nervous and she said, ‘No, I’m excited,'” Woodland said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m nervous.’ There were a lot of people in there. The energy was amazing.”
DIVOTS: Thomas and Rahm will play the first two rounds alongside 2016 and 2017 winner Hideki Matsuyama. Defending champion Rickie Fowler is in a group with Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau. Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson will join Andrew Landry, who won The American Express two weeks ago. … Charl Schwartzel, sidelined for much of last year with a wrist injury, is making first PGA Tour start since the RBC Heritage last April. The former Masters champion missed the cut in his two European Tour starts this year.
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