SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Justin Thomas knew what to expect when he drove up to TPC Scottsdale for the first time this week. He was still a bit surprised just how different the Waste Management Phoenix Open looks.
“It’s weird, before you even get on the course,” Thomas said. “I noticed just literally pulling into the golf course and not seeing the huge grandstand and everything kind of going down 18 and behind the green.”
The rowdy event that normally averages more than 100,000 fans a day is limited to about 4,500, still the most for a PGA Tour event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The par-3 16th hole is ringed by a stadium that's almost as high as usual, but with space for only 2,000 fans.
“Obviously, severely different,” said Thomas, at No. 3 one of five players in the top 10 in the world in the field. “But it definitely makes for shorter steps for the week.”
Rory McIlroy is playing the event for the first time. He plans to come back, too.
“I think I have to experience a real Phoenix Open at least once in my career,” McIlroy said. “I think it’s important to do that. I’ll definitely be back when things are more normal.”
Thomas is making his first PGA Tour start since losing his Ralph Lauren deal after he uttered a homophobic slur following a missed putt in the third round at Kapalua.
“It’s just like my golf game," Thomas said. "I’m continuing to try to progress and get better each and every day and each and every week.”
After finishing third at Kapalua, Thomas missed the cut in the European Tour event two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi.
“I feel overall my game is getting closer,” Thomas said. “It’s getting better.”
Former Arizona State star Jon Rahm is the top-ranked player in the field at No. 2. Xander Schauffele is fourth, McIlroy sixth and defending champion Webb Simpson ninth.
“It’s a home event,” Rahm said. “Get to sleep in my own bed, so it’s nice.”
The Spaniard enjoyed the home crowd during the pro-am Wednesday.
“Makes a big difference out there,” Rahm said. “It’s just great to see all the smiling faces of the kids, the fans. It was great to be out there.”
Simpson returned from the coronavirus to play the two events in Hawaii, tying for fourth three weeks ago in Honolulu. He beat Tony Finau in a playoff last year.
“This golf course has always been fun for me to play.” Simpson said. “I enjoy competing on it.”
DIVOTS: Three-time champion Phil Mickelson is skipping the tournament for the second straight year to play in Saudi Arabia. ... Rahm and Thomas will play alongside Harris English the first two rounds. McIlroy is in a group with Schauffele and Daniel Berger; 2015 champion Brooks Koepka is with 2019 winner Rickie Fowler and American Express champion Si Woo Kim; and Simpson with 2016-17 winner Hideki Matsuya and 2018 champion Gary Woodland.