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Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Welcome to the jungle at TPC Scottsdale


This Sunday, what is maybe the biggest annual celebration of American sports will commence. It's a passion-fueled, noisy, exciting celebration of everything that's great about the world of sports. Millions will tune in to see a raucous crowd cheering on the competitors.

Trivia question

Who made the first hole-in-one on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale in a PGA Tour event? (Answer below)

I'm not talking about the football game in Indianapolis. I'm talking about the 16th at TPC Scottsdale.

Extreme hyperbole aside, the 16th at this week's Waste Management Phoenix Open is one of the most unique experiences in all of professional golf.

The par-3, 162-yard hole has a tight landing area that demands accuracy and can be a turning point down the stretch on Sunday. But that's not what makes it so special. The hole is almost completely surrounded by bleachers, creating an atmosphere dubbed "stadium golf."

Describing said experience as "unique" seems like the best plan in this situation. Obviously, there are countless other holes in the world of golf that are more historic, but there are few that can match the energy that No. 16 features. Whether that "energy" is enhanced by adult refreshments being served is not for Numbers Game to declare.

What we can declare is that winners of this tournament have typically performed well on the 16th hole. The winner of the Phoenix Open has played No. 16 to par or better over four rounds every year since 2000. Only twice in that span did the winner play it to even par -- J.B. Holmes in 2006, and Mark Wilson last year.

Before Hunter Mahan did it two years ago, the last tournament winner to bogey the hole at any point during the week was Mark Calcavecchia in 2001. No winner has played the hole to over par for the week since the first time Phil Mickelson won the event back in 1996. Tournament winners since 2000 are a combined 11-under par on No. 16 (13 birdies, 2 bogeys).

It was much tougher sledding at the 16th last year. In 2011, there were 49 birdies and one eagle at the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale. That total of 50 was the fewest scores below par registered at 16 since 2005. In fact, the birdie percentage of 12.3 in 2011 was down from 17.7 percent back in 2007.

Of course, many golf fans will tell you that the better (and more important) hole comes next -- the drivable-par-4 17th. Though eagle is a real possibility on this hole, so is landing in the water.

In four of the past six years, the winner of this event made birdie on the 17th hole in the final round. Over the past four years, no winner has made bogey in any round on the hole. When Mickelson won here in 2005, he was 4-under for the week at 17, including making an eagle in Round 2.

Regardless of which of the two holes you prefer, the closing stretch at TPC Scottsdale is always entertaining, and should be again this weekend.


Three on the tee this week first takes a look at a bomber whom golf fans hope is back to full speed soon.

J.B. HOLMES: One of the easiest players to root for this week will be two-time winner J.B. Holmes. Holmes is making just his second start since undergoing brain surgery last year which required a piece of his skull to be removed. He will be making his seventh consecutive appearance at this event.

And why wouldn't the resilient Holmes come back? He finished tied for fifth here last year, and has a scoring average of 68.3 at TPC Scottsdale in his PGA Tour career.

WEBB SIMPSON: The sixth-ranked player in the world makes his continental U.S. debut for the year this week. Simpson is making just his fourth career start at this event this week, but finished T-8 here last year, posting 67 in Rounds 3 and 4.

Simpson's rise was one of the best stories in golf last year. The numbers show what an astronomical leap he made. He was T-57 on the PGA Tour in 2010 in par-4 scoring average. Last year, he tied for first. He was 121st on tour in 2010 in greens in regulation. Last year? Eighth.

PHIL MICKELSON: Lefty is being closed in on by old rival Tiger Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking this week (Phil is 16th, Woods 17th). No better place for Mickelson to get his 2012 season rolling than at one of his favorite tour stops, just 21 miles from his alma mater, Arizona State University.

Trivia answer

Question: Who made the first hole-in-one on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale in a PGA Tour event?

Answer: Hal Sutton, third round in 1988.

Mickelson posted his lowest round in his PGA Tour career at this event in 2005, when he carded a 60 in the second round. He won the event in 1996 and 2005, and finished runner-up in 2008. In 78 career rounds in this event, Mickelson has scored below par 51 times -- 65.4 percent. The crowds in Arizona will undoubtedly be cheering for him this week.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the new Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.