Rory McIlroy signs huge galleries with TPC Scottsdale for 2023 WM Phoenix Open
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For Thursday afternoon’s 18 holes, winding from the desert environment of the front nine to the distinctive stadium setups at the back, there was one constant.
When Rory McIlroy stood up to address his ball, the iPhone cameras shot up, each claiming several inches of hard-won real estate. When McIlroy finished, the iPhone cameras went back into their pockets. When fans lingered long enough to watch his playing partners – Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama – they only did so for a brief moment before moving in for McIlroy’s next shot.
It didn’t matter that McIlroy finished his second day, nor that he was paired with Morikawa, a two-time grand champion and one of the best young players in the world. The presence of Matsuyama, winner of the Phoenix Open in 2016 and 2017, also attracted only passing interest.
No, on Thursday the fans were here for McIlroy.
In the post-Tiger era of golf, stardom was short-lived. Jordan Spieth’s career has charted an idiosyncratic course. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau emerged, retired and are now making their appeals on the LIV Tour. Jon Rahm, for whatever reason, didn’t capture the zeitgeist in quite the same way. McIlroy, and only McIlroy, has been the constant. Never mind that he hasn’t won a major since 2014. The fans come for McIlroy and they will always come for McIlroy.
Just take the couple who stood next to the fifth green Thursday, waiting for McIlroy to arrive. When a flag bearer’s board revealed that all three players scored, the woman remarked, “Oh wow, they’re all over par.” To which her husband replied, “It’s still Rory.”
Three holes later, a few fans dressed in traditional Scottish golf underpants stood beside the eighth tee. The two friends had flown in from Nebraska and Texas in search of warm weather and fun. They started their day on hole 16, but one of them counts McIlroy among his favorite players. So as his day drew to a close, they lined up at the tee box and regaled him with chants of “Let’s go Rory!”
“Why not be here and watch some great players,” said Brian Schwabauer, the McIlroy fan.
For all the appeal of the Phoenix Open, TPC Scottsdale has only hosted this spectacle once before.
In 2021, with limited crowds due to COVID, McIlroy played here, finishing 13th out of 13 under. Every two years of his career he skipped the Phoenix Open and often spent the winter portion of his season playing on other continents.
“I wouldn’t say this is a golf course that suits me very well,” said McIlroy. “I’m struggling off the tee here. I feel like all the fairway bunkers are right in my landing zone.”
This year, however, McIlroy had little choice but to play the Phoenix Open. Last fall, the PGA Tour selected the tournament as one of its designated events. The top players can only skip one – and all but last month’s Sentry Tournament of Champions now have prizes of at least $20 million and McIlroy opted to skip the Sentry.
So here he is, ushering in a new era of the Phoenix Open. Technically, the tournament may not retain its high status after this year, but given its unique appeal, that seems unlikely.
Rory McIlroy makes his tee off on the 11th hole during the first round of the 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports)
To see the impact on the fan experience, all you had to do on Thursday was follow McIlroy for a few holes. Of course there were the chants. “I love you Rory” was a common chorus. But the proof lay in the plundering stream of the masses.
The fourth green is perhaps the most remote region of TPC Scottsdale. From the top of a hill to the left, the 16th grandstand is visible above the horizon, but barely. Four holes and a lake stand between No. 4 and the course’s top attractions. But when McIlroy passed by, the hill filled up and they stood shoulder to shoulder to catch a glimpse of their hero. And when he left, those fans rushed to get their hands on fifth fairway real estate. And so it went for four hours on Thursday.
“I think from fan experience that it’s really good that the top players show up,” said Xander Schauffele, who finished 4 under. “I am a golf enthusiast. Of course I don’t watch it as often as some people do, but I’d like to see the top players pull it off every week.”
The increased status also brings advantages for the players. Of course, the main one, as McIlroy later laughed, is that “I get the chance to win $3.6 million.” But having to play on an uncomfortable course now – two months before the Masters season kicks off – also has value.
“It’s a challenge, and again, I’m trying to take that challenge,” said McIlroy. “Yeah, look, not an event I play historically, but I feel like I’m a good enough player to figure it out and compete and win on any golf course.”
A group later, Schauffele McIlroy’s offered the opposite experience. He plays the Phoenix Open every year and succeeds in this too. In five Phoenix Opens, he has five top-20s and two top-threes. A veteran of the desert landscape.
That perspective was enough to recognize a difference in the setup of this go-around. Thursday’s wind did not control the organizers. The “awkward” pin locations – as Schauffele described them – were not.
“I don’t care,” said Schauffele. “You just don’t expect it to come here.”
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek