An exhausted Webb Simpson watched last year’s Super Bowl from a hotel room in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to process the day’s events.
He had just stormed back from two shots behind with two holes to play to beat Tony Finau in a playoff at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. And he did it in front of some 150,000 fans in attendance – 22,000 of them crammed into the stadium seating at the famous par-3 16th hole.
Simpson returns as the defending champion this week, but TPC Scottsdale will have a far different vibe. With Arizona reporting among the highest COVID-19 positive test counts in the country, tournament organizers are capping fan attendance at 5,000 daily.
“This tournament at the end of the week, we always feel like we just played a major because we’re so tired from – you have to zone out a lot of times throughout the round,” Simpson said Tuesday. “You have to focus extra hard on getting ready for a shot because there’s just a lot of noise.
“I definitely think I’ll be able to conserve energy a lot more knowing that a normal year on the fourth or fifth hole, there might be somebody yelling in my backswing. I probably won’t have as much of that this year.”
Evidence of the annual PGA Tour stop is typically seen around TPC Scottsdale for half the year as it takes three months to build and three months to deconstruct the grandstands around the 16th hole alone. This year, it has been reduced from three levels to just one.
Simpson said he could see the 18th hole from the parking lot on Tuesday, which is usually blocked by another grandstand. He also anticipates having to adjust to different site lines with no fans lining the fairway – sometimes even providing a welcomed stopping point for wayward tee shots otherwise headed for the desert.
Simpson has fared well over the years at TPC Scottsdale with a runner-up in 2017 and a T20 two years ago among his finishes. He is one of the many PGA Tour pros who have embraced the energy of the raucous crowd, and acknowledged he will miss the buzz of walking off the 15th green, through the tunnel and into the party atmosphere surrounding the 16th tee box.
“I just think the overall energy on 15, 16, 17 with the lack of fans there is going to be different and kind of a letdown,” he said. “So that will definitely be missed this year, maybe more than any other golf course we play.”
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are among those who have said the lack of fans since the Tour resumed last June has impacted their performance. McIlroy has cited a lack of focus through 18 holes while Woods has missed feeling charged up by the roar of the crowd.
Simpson got a taste of that last year when he birdied the final two holes of regulation to catch Finau as the pressure ratcheted up along with the noise. The two returned to the 18th hole, with Simpson rolling in his third consecutive birdie for the unlikely victory.
“I think playing out here for a while, you realize kind of how Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) and these guys really use the crowd to their advantage,” Simpson said. “The environment Tony and I played in last year on Sunday, the playoff… it’s so fun to be in that energy and to hear the noises.
“We’re going to realize what we’re missing, and so we’re going to hopefully be back to normal next year, I hope, because this tournament is kind of in a league of its own when it comes to the energy and the loudness.”
–Field Level Media