An underdog story: In tournament lacking big names, some longshots were making theirs at WM Phoenix Open

Charley Hoffman walks defeated after missing his birdie putt during the second playoff hole at the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – While fans were still busy searching for a drink, slipping around in the mud or trying to simply navigate the massive crowd that packed TPC Scottsdale at the WM Phoenix Open over the weekend, a tournament longshot and a fan favorite were turning heads with their surprising performances.

Andrew Novak, who is 228th in the most recent Official World Golf Ranking, and Sahith Theegala, who endeared himself to the huge galleries when he challenged for a victory here in 2022, were putting on the early show as some of the field completed their third round and started the fourth Sunday because of weather delays earlier in the tournament.

Heading into Thursday’s opening round, all eyes were on Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world for the past 39 weeks and a two-time defending champion at TPC Scottsdale.

Scheffler headlined a field largely lacking in star power that included two-time major champion Justin Thomas and 2023 U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark, who was coming off a victory at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am that moved him to No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

After an underwhelming 3-under 68 in the first round, Scheffler showed why he has been No. 1 in the world for such a long stretch.

He nearly overtook eventual winner Nick Taylor, who tied the course record with an 11-under 60 in the opening round and went on to defeat Charley Hoffman in a playoff after both finished at 21 under.

Alas, Scheffler’s attempt to become the first three-peat winner at a PGA Tour event since Steve Stricker won the John Deere Classic from 2009-11 was spoiled. No player has won three straight at Phoenix since Arnold Palmer pulled the trifecta from 1961-63 when the tournament was played at Phoenix Country Club and Arizona Country Club.

“I’d say I’m a bit frustrated,” Scheffler said. “I didn’t really finish the way I wanted to, but I gave myself a good chance this week. Played a lot of solid golf, did a lot of good things. Obviously I’m a little bit frustrated with how I finished, but outside of that, I gave myself a good chance. Just wasn’t able to close.”

Until Scheffler started cooking, it was Theegala and Novak who provided the early drama.

Sahith Theegala continues to solidify his status as a rising star in the world of golf after an impressive output at the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Sahith Theegala continues to solidify his status as a rising star in the world of golf after an impressive output at the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Theegala in contention again

The WM Phoenix Open is nothing new to Theegala, who finished in a tie for third in 2022 after holding a two-shot lead going into the final round that year – just months after earning his PGA Tour card.

He entered the 2022 WM Phoenix Open at No. 318 on the Official World Golf Ranking. His shocking performance two years ago and numerous top-10 finishes over the past two seasons catapulted him to No. 20. On an unusually wet, chilly day that caused a long delay in the first round, Theegala fired a 6-under-par 65 and trailed Taylor, who tied the course record with an 11-under 60, by five shots. Novak was also five back.

As many of the players in field still had to complete the first round Friday, Theegala never teed off. During his “break,” Theegala had no issue finding ways to occupy his time, hitting the gym, watching tournament coverage and keeping his head in the game.

“I woke up late. We had a brunch, spent like two hours at brunch, had coffee and came back,” Theegala said. “(I) came here, practiced for maybe an hour, double-checked that I wasn’t going to tee off, went and ate some Thai food for dinner, and that was it. Called it a night.”

When he finally got to play again Saturday, Theegala picked up where he had left off, firing a 64, the best score of any player in the second round and enough for a one-shot lead over Taylor and Novak. He followed that up with a two-under 69 that began Saturday, ended Sunday and left him tied with Taylor entering the final round, which began after a short break Sunday.

However, another 69 wasn’t enough to keep pace, and he finished alone in fifth. His score of 17-under was still good for a $360,800 payday.

Despite the late fade, Theegala is quickly making a name for himself on Tour. “Thee-ga-la! Thee-gal-a!” chants from the crowd were evidence that he is a fan favorite at “The People’s Open,” as WM Phoenix Open organizers like to call the event.

“It was cool to see all the support and people chanting my name and all that, it’s the best,” Theegala said. “I got a good sense of that last year when I came back after the run I made the first year, so to be back is always great.”

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Who is Andrew Novak?

Novak entered the third round tied for the lead with Taylor, who followed his 60 with a 1-under 70 in the second round. The two sat at 12 under.

But a lot of fans at TPC Scottsdale had to be asking: Who is Andrew Novak?

The 28-year-old had never won a PGA Tour event, missed the cut in the first three tournaments of 2024 yet was vying for his first win after pulling even with Taylor, a shot behind Theegala.

“I played pretty poorly the last two weeks but played a lot better at (the 2024 Farmers Insurance Open). Missed the cut, but I thought my game was in a good spot,” Novak said. “I shot under par at the South Course (at Torrey Pines), which you’ve got to play good golf to do that. I knew I was close and put a lot of work in the off week, and my coach was here earlier this week. My swing finally was in a good place going into this tournament.”

Novak, who graduated from Wofford College, a tiny liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina, earned his PGA Tour card in 2021 to join William McGirt as the only Wofford alums to earn PGA Tour privileges. Ahead of the rowdiest experience in golf, Novak attempted to recruit fellow Terriers out to TPC Scottsdale. He even offered free tickets on his X account.

It was Novak’s first time playing at the WM Phoenix Open, and he exceeded expectations through the first two rounds. After a decent 2-under performance in round three, Novak shot a one-over 72 in Sunday’s final round, which dropped him into a tie for eighth place at 13 under.

It is only the third time Novak has finished among the top 10 on the PGA Tour, and he’ll cash a $248,600 check for the effort.

He could have blamed a chaotic Saturday experience that rattled some players after rain early in the week created a quagmire on the Stadium Course, and raucous overflow crowds created plenty of distractions.

However, Novak acknowledged that it’s part of the game in the WM Phoenix Open, and he enjoys the challenge that tournament presents.

“I came in with the right mindset, just embrace it,” Novak said. “You can’t get mad at people. It’s going to happen. I grew up playing other sports, and always grew up thinking I was going to play football or basketball. And then you get the fans yelling at you. That’s so fun to me.

“We have great fans everywhere, but this is different. I’ve really been excited to get to play my first one and experience this because it really is fun.”

Sahith Theegala continues to solidify his status as a rising star in the world of golf after an impressive output at the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Sahith Theegala continues to solidify his status as a rising star in the world of golf after an impressive output at the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Comeback Charley

Perhaps the biggest underdog story at the WM Phoenix Open was the 47-year-old Hoffman, who is playing this season on a career money exemption after losing his full-time status two years ago.

It had been 2,849 days since Hoffman’s last PGA Tour victory, and he surged up the leaderboard in the final two rounds to force a playoff with Taylor. However, Hoffman ultimately came up just short, losing to Taylor after the victor birdied the par-4 18th in their second sudden-death matchup on the hole.

Hoffman, who is coming off back issues and a cancer scare last year, was trying to become the second oldest player to win the tournament and believes that he can still compete in tournaments to come.

It is the second time that Hoffman, who is sponsored by the tournament’s name sponsor, Waste Management, has lost in a playoff in the WM Phoenix Open. He fell to 48-year-old Kenny Perry in 2009 on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff.

“I played my butt off. I gave myself a chance,” Hoffman said. “I knew if I got to that 22(under-par) number it would be hard for him to catch me, and left a putt short in regulation. But I love the juices. I love competing. This builds a little fire in the belly. I definitely want to be back here.”

Aaron Schmidt EH-run shmit
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Schmidt expects to graduate in spring 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. In addition to the Phoenix Sports Bureau, Schmidt reports for The Arizona Republic and The State Press. He has also interned with Arizona’s Family and Arizona Sports 98.7.

Ethan Briggs(he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Ethan Briggs expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Briggs has worked with Blaze Radio for three years.