Phoenix Open Lacks Vast Majority of World’s “Top 20”

Nice move by Mike McQuaid and the Thunderbirds, giving the first of five sponsor’s exemptions into the Waste Management Phoenix Open to local pro Tom Lehman, the 2000 champ. Too bad everything can’t go so “green’’ for McQuaid, the tournament chairman for the WMPO, which tees off Feb. 3-6 at the TPC Scottsdale. Actually, the T-birds never can grumble because Waste Management has literally dumped $25 million into their bank account, a recycled load of the green stuff that won’t run out until 2014. That, and the Birds know that they’ve got the largest crowds in golf as well as the game’s best “special events,’’ like the Fenway Park-like 16th hole and the infamous Birds’ Nest, the No. 1 meat market in Scottsdale, hands down.

But outside of Phil Mickelson, the former Arizona State star who sits No. 4 in the world, and Rickie Fowler, the mop-top kid who was last season’s top rookie – who both have already committed – the 132-man field isn’t going get much better from a world rankings standpoint. Yeah, defending champ Hunter Mahan will be there, but outside of Mahan, who is No. 19, who else from the official top 20?

Not Lee Westwood or Tiger Woods or Martin Kaymer, the Nos. 1-3, respectively, although Kaymer does live in Paradise Valley. Kaymer did play here last year but that was before the big German won the PGA Championship and began playing a schedule that is predominantly world-wide.

Not Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker or Paul Casey, the Nos. 5-8 even if Casey lives about 20 minutes from the TPC. Of that group, Casey is the biggest “why not?’’ although most of the Brits will tell you the reason is because the former Arizona State star is a “baby.’’ That’s their word not mine, according to his former Ryder Cup teammates. And true to form, Casey doesn’t like the raucous nature of the WMPO.

Then you go from No. 9 through No. 12 – Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Ernie Els – and those players aren’t going to happen. Same with No. 13 Matt Kuchar, Retief Goosen, Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Robert Karlsson, Eduardo Molinari and Robert Allenby (Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 20). Most of those guys are in Qatar or Dubai this time of year along with Westwood and Woods.

So out of the top 20 in the world, the Waste Management probably is going to have to settle for Mickelson and Mahan, and Fowler at No. 28. I don’t remember such an unstar-studded field since the tournament moved to Scottsdale. (Can you say happy 25th birthday?) By comparison, last year’s tournament had six players in the top 20 – Mickelson, Kaymer, Vijay Singh, Camillo Villegas, Ian Poulter and Geoff Ogilvy. Of course, that Phoenix Open preceded (for one year only) the prestigious WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, so call that a “jaded’’ high point.

Blame some of this year’s lack of a big marquee on the foreign factor, as 13 of the top 20 players in the world are from other countries besides the USofA. But blame more of it on the fact there are a lot of mega-purses out there on golf’s big-money stage, as 17 tournaments now have purses that are $6.5 million or greater – 14 over $7 million. Such numbers make the WMPO’s look paltry at $6.1 million, especially when compared to Tucson’s $8.5 million.

Granted, the Phoenix Open is more than just the field, as great weather in Scottsdale on Super Bowl weekend is hard to beat, so people will be somewhat satisfied with that. And the tournament has raised more than $4 million for charity the past two years in a difficult economic climate, and that’s certainly a good thing, too.

Still, when will the Phoenix Open return to the glory days, when the best players always showed up in Scottsdale and before that at Phoenix Country Club? Seriously, it’s been more than a little while since the Phoenix Open field glittered like diamonds, or to be precise, way back to 2001 when Woods waved good-bye.

It seems like the only real solution(s) to raise the Phoenix Open is to jack the purse by at least a million bucks or get Waste Management to ink Tiger to a long-term deal. If I’m making that decision, the Woods option – tarnished image or no tarnished image — seems like a “gimme.’’

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