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Defending champ Matsuyama relishes raucous Phoenix Open


LOS ANGELES — The riotous atmosphere of the Phoenix Open isn’t every golfer’s cup of tea, but it sure suits defending champion Hideki Matsuyama.

Japan’s world number five, winner of four of his last eight starts worldwide, has a more than solid record at TPC Scottsdale, where he has finished equal fourth, equal second and first in three appearances.

“I’m not really sure whether it’s the course, but I do know that the tremendous galleries that we have here just invigorates me and gets me going,” Matsuyama said.

“I love playing here.”

The “Greatest Show on Grass” is famed for its massive crowds — with some 600,000 spectators expected over the course of this week — as well as the party atmosphere epitomized by the rowdy thousands who flock to the 16th hole.

Some find it intimidating, but not Matsuyama, who can draw not only on his success here last year but also on his red-hot recent form.

After a fifth-placed finish at the US PGA Tour Championship to end last season, Matsuyama won the Japan Open and the World Golf Championships HSBC Champions in October, the Taiheiyo Masters in November and the Tiger

Woods-hosted Hero World Challenge in the first week of December.

He also squeezed in a second place finish at the CIMB Classic before opening 2017 with a runner-up finish to Justin Thomas in the USPGA Tour Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January.

He cooled a bit with 27th and 33rd place finishes at the Sony Open and Farmers Insurance Open, but hopes a return to Phoenix will turn things around again.

“I have played well the last six months or so,” the 24-year-old said.

“I didn’t have real good tournaments at Sony and Farmers, so I’m a little reluctant to say I’m in top form. But hopefully coming back to the desert, especially here in Scottsdale, it revitalized me. Hopefully I’ll be able to compete on Sunday for a repeat.”

Rahm arrives

For 22-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm, the Phoenix Open will be a celebratory homecoming of sorts.

He attended Arizona State University and two years ago he was in contention to become the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open.

He ended up tied for fifth, but comes in this week fresh from his first tour title, at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

He admitted he was exhausted in the aftermath of his first tour win, and was still trying to catch up with the congratulatory messages that poured in — including nods from Larry Fitzgerald of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz.

“I feel like this week I’m going to have to kind of isolate myself a little bit, try to keep doing what I would do in a regular tournament, even if I’m here or back home,” Rahm said.

“If I get caught up in the moment of just keep celebrating and trying to say hello to everybody that I’ve met over the years here in Phoenix, I feel like I will lose track of what I have to do this week.

“At the end of the day, I’m in another event and I’m here to hopefully win again. I have to keep reminding myself that.” — AFP

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