Let the ‘Par-Tee’ Begin: WM Phoenix Open brings the noise

By Joe McHugh 

After record-breaking attendance in 2022, bringing in over 719,000 fans, the WM Phoenix Open is firing back up at TPC Scottsdale, in what should be its biggest tournament. With the Super Bowl in town the same weekend, all systems will be a go to bring the tournament to new heights.

“We’re going to have probably 90,000 people per day at a minimum,” tournament Chairman Pat Williams says.

“Certainly, on the weekend, we’re going to have more, so with the sheer size and scale of our tournament, we’ll have almost five or six days of people at our tournament that will match the Super Bowl crowd every day, which is really fun and exciting.”

Organized by the Thunderbirds, the 2023 WM Phoenix Open kicks off Monday, February 6, and runs through Sunday, February 13.

It will host free practice rounds, and other peripheral events like Annexus Pro Am, the Special Olympics Putting contest. The “Greatest Show on Grass” starts Thursday, February 9.

The 132-player field is loaded this year, with a commitment from the world’s top golfer, Rory McIlroy, as well as defending champion and No. 2-ranked Scottie Scheffler.

Other top-ranked players in the field are Xander Schauffele (6), Will Zalatoris (7), Justin Thomas (8), Collin Morikawa (9), Tony Finau (12), Sam Burns (13), Max Homa (16), Cameron Young (17), Sungjae Im (19), Shane Lowry (20) and Tommy Fleetwood (24). Golfers must commit by 5 p.m. Friday, February 3.

“It’s just going to have a tremendous effect on our tournament overall,” Williams says. “Our fans who are there to see golf are going to see the best players in the world. It’s really exciting for us to have a field that really will rival any major tournament, or one of the majors in golf, so we couldn’t be more excited.”

Another player joining the field is 2022 WM Phoenix Open T14 finisher Chris Kirk, who will be looking to capture the title. Kirk has participated in the WM Phoenix Open 10 times in the last 11 years. Only being cut twice in that span, Kirk knows how to navigate the course.

“I think that the course just sets up really great for me,” Kirk says. “It gets a little bit of a reputation of bombers playing well there, but I feel like you’ve got to drive really good out there, especially the par 5s. It’s really important to hit fairways.

“I don’t know, something about the warm desert air, I kind of tend to like that, too. But it’s just a course where I’ve been comfortable over the years.”

Kirk was on a roll in the 2021-22 season, coming off one of the better years. He’s placed well in big tournaments like the PGA Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Honda Classic and RBC Canadian Open, finishing top 10 in each event.

His momentum has carried into the new season, as he has played in seven events, only missing two cuts. His success continues this season, missing the same number of cuts.

Recently, he shot a -15 at the Sony Open in Hawaii, placing in third for the tournament. He started out hot at Waialae Country Club, going -11 through the leading to being the 36-hole leader.

“It was just a really solid week all around,” Kirk says. “That’s a golf course where you really need to drive the ball well, and I did for the most part. I didn’t make quite as many fairways on Sunday as I would have liked to, but the rest of my game was pretty sharp.”

His road to a top-three finish included a near ace on hole No. 7, a 176-yard par 3. Kirk just carried the front bunker and rolled the ball to 1 foot from the hole.

“With a little bit of hurt, it was a nice number,” Kirk says. “I actually miss hit it a tiny bit, but thankfully, it just covered that bunker and got a nice little hop forward and ended up tight.”

Kirk’s near ace is an encouraging sign. Coming into the WM Phoenix Open, Kirk said he hopes to put up a similar shot on the 162-yard 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, one of the most famous par 3s.

“I’ve always loved 16. It’s really cool, just the crowd, and there’s just such an arena in there,” Kirk says about the party spot. “There’s no other place in golf where you’re going to have the adrenaline going like on the 16th, like you’re going to have there.”

“I’ve had some really good memories on that hole. I’ve hit a lot of really good shots, and I’ve came really close to an ace a few times.”

Kirk’s confidence on the course, and with 16, will be an asset come tournament time as he chases his first WM Phoenix Open title and first PGA Tour victory since 2015.

Expanded purse

The WM Phoenix Open is one of just 17 tournaments this season designated for a bigger purse. The players will compete for a $3.6 million first-place prize, more than double the 2022 purse. This prize is pulled from a $20 million purse in 2023, $11.8 million above the $8.2 million purse last year, as well as 500 FedEx Cup points.

“I’m expecting a great field, maybe the best field we’ve ever had,” Williams says. “At the core, what makes this work is the players, and we need and want a good field every year. It’s very important to the success of the tournament.”

One of the oldest events on the PGA Tour, the WM Phoenix Open will be entering its 88th iteration. The structure of the golf tournament has evolved, turning from an ordinary golf event to a spectacle.

The 2023 WM Phoenix Open experience will feature many of the things that were at last year’s event, like the return of the 36,000-square-foot Fairway House, a general admission structure on the highest point of the golf course that offers the best views.

Starting on Monday, the first of two pro-am events, the Carlisle Pro-Am, will be held and has free admission.

The following day is a free practice round, where the pros will be in action, sharpening their game and concocting a winning game plan. Tuesday will also include the Special Olympics putting contest, paving the way for the tournament to thank organizations for supporting the event.

Come Wednesday, the stars are out to shine in the Annexus Pro-Am. Participants include former Arizona Cardinals running back and Super Bowl champion Emmitt Smith, ASU alumni and the most decorated Olympic athlete Michael Phelps, and three-time MVP Albert Pujols.

“Wednesday is maybe my favorite day of the week,” Williams says. “Wednesday is our pro-am day, but it’s also our shot at glory, which, if fans haven’t been to that, shot of glory is a fantastic honor and tribute to our military. And we have a really neat event where we’ll have some people hit shots at the 16th hole for charity.”

With the combined events of the WM Phoenix Open and the Super Bowl, the world will have its eyes on Arizona for what should be a weekend of quality golf and even better events, all in support of charity.

“As much as I am excited, I’m just proud that myself and the support of 54 other active Thunderbirds, and 200 plus more-like Thunderbirds have all worked very hard this year to make this tournament what it will be,” Williams says. “Of course, I’m excited. We’re going to have an awesome, awesome week. But I’m prouder just to be part of the organization and be part of giving back to the community.”

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