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Keep an Eye on…

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The $1,098,000-dollar question: Who will win the 2011 Waste Management Phoenix Open? As with every TOUR event on the schedule, it’s next to impossible to predict. The talent is just too diverse. Week-in and week-out, there are several dozen players in the field with a legitimate shot at victory. So basically it boils down to who’s hot that week, who gets the breaks and who manages to capitalize on those breaks. This parity is good for golf, good for the TOUR, and of course good for fans. Here are a handful of players in the field to keep an eye on.

Hunter Mahan
Let’s start with the defending champion, Hunter Mahan. His hiccup at a crucial moment during last year’s Ryder Cup certainly grabbed the attention of the golf world, especially the pundits. And they’ll definitely be watching his first few starts of the 2011 season with a critical eye, despite the fact that he clearly dispelled any doubts of his resolve with a late-season win at the Bridgestone Invitational. In last year’s WM Phoenix Open he came from behind in the final round, posting a four-under-par 67 on his way to first-place honors. No lapse down the stretch there. Expect more of the same this year from Mahan.

Ben Crane
Last year, Ben Crane carded his first of two victories in late January at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines; which due to a one-time scheduling anomaly, happened to fall on Super Bowl week, a timeslot traditionally held by the Phoenix Open for decades. Now that the WM Phoenix Open moved back to its usual week, Crane has an odd opportunity to defend his Super-Bowl-week win at a different event. His history at the WM Phoenix Open isn’t the greatest, he’s missed more cuts than he’s made, but there’s no doubt that Crane has the kind of consistent talent to win. In fact, last year he earned the second spot on the PGA TOUR’s All-Around Ranking, which is an amalgam of eight different stats including Driving Distance, Greens in Regulation, Putting Average and a few other categories.

Robert Garrigus
Valley resident and Scottsdale Community College alum, Robert Garrigus joins the field at the WM Phoenix Open after overcoming some of the most dramatic circumstances on the PGA TOUR in 2010. In June, he made triple bogey on the 72nd hole of the St. Jude Classic to back up into a playoff before eventually finishing tied for second place. Most mere mortals would have crumbled, but Garrigus shook off the body blow with a victory five months later at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. His extreme length (315-yard average, ranked 1st on TOUR for Driving Distance in 2010) just might come in handy on the wide-open spaces of TPC Scottsdale.

Phil Mickelson
In his 22nd start at the Phoenix Open, fan-favorite Phil Mickelson continues to thrill the galleries with his full-throttle style that since 1989 already yielded two first-place finishes and nearly $2.5 million in earnings. Lefty’s big game perfectly suits TPC Scottsdale’s big stage: his entrance into the stadium at the famed 16th hole on Saturday afternoon always serves as one of the most electric moments of the week, and that’s before he even takes a swing. Fresh off a 2010 season complete with his second Green Jacket, Mickelson’s length (ranked 13th), inclination to make a ton of birdies (15th) and eagles (5th) illustrates that for Phil, the light is always green.

Kevin Na
In only five appearances at the WM Phoenix Open, Kevin Na has managed to fill his treasure chest with more than $1.1 million in earnings, making the cut in each event with three top-five finishes. He just seems to play well at TPC Scottsdale. Although still in his 20s, Na’s game has matured well beyond his years: a statement most recently validated by four top-10s in 2010, including a second-place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a third-place finish at the BMW Championship.

Charley Hoffman
Although Hoffman missed the cut in three of four starts at the WM Phoenix Open, the one he did make lead to a solo-second-place finish and a check for $648,000 after eventually losing in a playoff to Kenny Perry in 2009. Hoffman enjoys a “home-sponsor advantage,” he’s donned the WM logo for years. Plus, it follows that his take-me-as-I-am attitude would fit nicely with the sometimes raucous, always electrifying atmosphere at TPC Scottsdale. The guy is a birdie-making machine, ranking 7th in birdies made in 2010, probably because Hoffman hits a lot of greens. He ranked 12th on TOUR with a greens-in-regulation percentage of nearly 82.

Rickie Fowler
Shortly after bursting onto the PGA TOUR, it became obvious that Fowler’s future in the game is every bit as bright as color of his outfit on any given day. And he seems to shine brightest in the desert sun. Fowler finished T-2 in the 2009 Frys.com Open played at nearby Grayhawk Golf Club. In 2010 he finished in solo-second place in the WM Phoenix Open, despite a bewildering final-round layup on the reachable par-5, 15th. Odd because Fowler doesn’t let too many winged creatures get away, ranking 10th in total Eagles and 14th in total Birdies on TOUR in 2010. Fowler’s play on the golf courses coupled with breath-of-fresh-air persona certainly attracts a fair share of attention from the fans. He’s the PGA TOUR’s latest shiny object that appears to be anything but a flash in the pan.

Jamie Lovemark
Lovemark enters the fray at the WM Phoenix Open on the heels of a spectacular 2010 season on the Nationwide Tour, placing first on the money list with $452,951 in earnings. This stat alone gives him full status on the PGA TOUR for 2011. He also made two cuts on the big stage in 2010 including a T-30 finish at the Frys.com Open, an event Lovemark nearly won the year before. After finding himself in a playoff with Rickie Fowler and Troy Matteson, his approach on the first extra hole clearly splashed down in a greenside lake but, astonishingly, squired out of the water before coming to rest high-and-dry. Instant replay of the unlikely escape only revealed more questions than answers. Although Lovemark ultimately ended up falling short to a birdie by Matteson, anyone who can defy physics always has a shoot to win.

Cameron Beckman
2011 marks Cameron Beckman’s ninth start at the WM Phoenix Open, making the cut in all but three events. Beckman is no stranger to success in the Valley. He notched a victory in a playoff at the 2008 Frys.com Open contested a stone’s throw away from TPC Scottsdale at Grayhawk Golf Club. Beckman enters the WM Phoenix Open after a strong showing in 2010 season with a win at the Mayakoba Golf Classic; a T-5 at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and a T-6 at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Bo Van Pelt
Although Van Pelt’s past performances at the WM Phoenix Open don’t really measure up to his level of play at other events, his all-around talent gives him as good a chance as any for another career TOUR victory to match his lone win at the U.S. Bank Championship in 2009. Indeed, by the end of the 2010 season, he earned the seventh spot in the All-Around Ranking. His Scoring Average ranked ninth best among all TOUR players, and he also came within one stroke of victory at the Frys.com Open, in the end, only bested by a super-human performance by Rocco Mediate.

Without the benefit of a crystal ball, handicapping the WM Phoenix Open represents an exercise in futility, but it’s still fun to make a few guesses anyway. Who’s your horse?