SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On Wednesday at TPC Scottsdale, the hill behind the ninth green was the place to be. Professionals competing in the pro-am traded places at the turn, offering fans a chance to snatch an autograph or two. The amateurs alongside them were more than happy to take the time to engage.
This, though, is not the 16th hole on Saturday. Real estate along the rope was hardly at a premium, even when Emmitt Smith and Carli Lloyd come by.
Then, around 12:30, that all began to change. It seemed a bit weird, considering the biggest draw on the green at the time was J.T. Poston, the world’s 49th-ranked player. But beyond Poston, past a greenside bunker and up the sloping fairway was the reason. There, preparing for his approach shot, was J.J. Watt.
On Wednesday, no face drew more attention than the recently-retired Watt’s. His number 99 — donned in both Cardinals’ red and Texans’ blue — outnumbered jerseys for this weekend’s Super Bowl participants. Chants of “J-J” broke out whenever and wherever. When he sunk a short putt to finish the front nine, the cheers were enough to make an unobservant spectator think he or she had fast-forwarded to Sunday afternoon.
And, of course, there were the crowds. Along those same green ropes that remained half-full most of the day, fans lined five-deep, reaching out hats, signs, water bottles and whatever else they hoped Watt would sign.
For Jon Rahm — the world No. 3 and this week’s betting co-favorite — playing with Watt offered the ideal start to the week. Since Watt signed with the Cardinals in 2021, he and Rahm, who lives in Scottsdale, have developed a close friendship.
On the ninth hole, as Rahm peeled off to exchange places with Seamus Power, that was on full display. The pair shared a short hug on the green before posing with each other’s gameday attire — Rahm with a white Watt Cardinals’ jersey and Watt with a pink golf polo.
“I’ve been fortunate to play with a friend a couple years in a row,” Rahm said. “It makes it a lot more fun because I can kind of be myself earlier in the day and the rest of the (amateurs) that have never met me and that I’ve never met get to know the real me very quickly just by my interactions with them. So it makes it a lot more fun.”
Although the fans stood five-deep mainly for Watt, Rahm was also happy to oblige with their autograph requests. When the following group — featuring Reggie Bush and Justin Thomas — finished up their front nine, Rahm was still signing. Even when the group after them came by, Rahm lingered, making sure each kid could get a photo or autograph.
These moments, Rahm explained later, carry extra meaning to him. To this day, he still has a photo he took with Henrik Stenson as a kid, featuring the six-time PGA Tour winner signing a young Rahm’s t-shirt.
“I’ve been one of those kids,” Rahm said. “And you never know when one of them — two seconds of my time makes a difference in their day. I see myself in them and it takes no time. But you still need boundaries. I don’t do it when I’m practicing on the course because I need the time so it’s a little bit different. But yeah, they’re here watching, they’re just kids. So if I can do a little bit of that to make their day, I’ll do it.”
As for his thoughts on Watt’s game, Rahm struck a positive tone — even as Watt himself tweeted out a video Tuesday night warning fans to watch for errant drives.
“He needs to work on everything a little bit, obviously,” Rahm said. “But just the fact that he can play golf consistently (in retirement) is gonna take care of that. He actually is a very underrated putter once he gets the speed of the greens. He’s a good putter. It’s just the mental aspect of things in golf, trial and error, that he needs to improve a little bit.”
Rahm’s biggest piece of advice has been a simple one: Warm up. “I told him to at least chip and putt to get the touch going,” Rahm said. “… Whether he listens or not is different.”
In some pairings, though, the direction advice went the other way. Half an hour before Rahm and Watt came through, 2019 U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland finished up his front nine with Michael Phelps.
“Shoot, I’ve been picking his brain,” Woodland said when asked what advice he’s given Phelps. “He’s the greatest of all time, I’ve been picking his brain. … More mental stuff that we talk about. Personal stuff.”