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The PGA Tour's Party Central

The February stop in Scottsdale, known today as the FBR Open, is simply the most raucous, outrageous, unruly four-day golf competition anywhere
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009

As players enter the portal that leads them to the 16th tee of the TPC Scottsdale, they take a deep breath, steeling themselves for what lies ahead.

It's a 50-foot walk underneath the grandstand to a hole that's unlike any other in golf. Let's just say it's not a stroll through Amen Corner in Augusta, Georgia. This, to every pro golfer, is Mayhem Corner, the epicenter of insanity on the PGA Tour.

The 16th hole at the TPC, a routine par 3 in name only, is at the very heart of the Phoenix Open, the PGA Tour's annual stop that is part Spring Break Cancún, part Mardi Gras and part Oktober-fest. The 16th was completely enclosed by grandstands this year, making it the world's first stadium golf hole. As many as 20,000 spectators a day, fueled by enough beer to fill a decent water hazard, gather here to celebrate themselves, the joys of inordinate consumption and the success and failure of the players who march before them as golf- shoe-wearing gladiators in the Colosseum.

If you want Old World tradition, beauty, grace, etiquette and championship golf, then try to hustle up a badge to the Masters. Augusta National is your place. If it's an all-day (and into the night) party you want, the TPC Scottsdale is your place. You can buy a ticket and hustle up all the sun-kissed chicks you want. At the 16th hole one of the many sponsors, Crown Royal, passes out "Quiet Please" paddles to the spectators. But these paddles ask for "Quiet" only on one side. On the other side, it's "Party."

And boy, do they—in droves. More than 470,000 people attended this year's Phoenix Open (which will be known as the FBR Open for one more year), an economy-impacted figure down from the 538,000 who came the year before, but still by far the most heavily attended golf tournament in the world and one that donates substantial sums to charity each year, including more than $8.5 million in 2008 alone. By comparison, the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park in New York attracted about 288,000 people, and while the Masters doesn't release attendance figures, estimates reach about 250,000. If you could measure the party factor at a golf tournament on the Stimpmeter, the Phoenix Open would be rolling at about 20, more than twice as slick as most tournaments.

The Phoenix Open began in 1932, just two years before the Masters, but despite originating in the same era, the tournaments went into completely separate orbits. Golf was central to both, but in the past two decades, ever since the tournament moved to the TPC Scottsdale in 1987, the Phoenix Open has transformed itself from a really good time into a nuclear explosion of merrymaking. The Thunderbirds, the organization that runs the tournament, is a 72-year-old adjunct of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce dedicated to promoting the area and raising money for charity. For the Thunderbirds, the Phoenix Open needs to be much more than a polite procession, a reverent ritual, a sober social gathering. The Phoenix Open is the anti-Augusta. Booing? It's allowed. Heckling? It's tolerated. Party till you drop? Go for it.

"The tournament is about people having a good time," says Jerry Lewkowitz, a Thunderbird since 1962. "We'd like them to be respectful of the players, but our atmosphere is different here. When you see someone in short-shorts, a halter top and spike heels, you know they aren't there for the golf."

It's at the 16th where the party all comes together, and where the players find themselves in a unique emotional state between excitement and hand-shaking apprehension. From the moment a group walks through that portal and onto the tee, they are assailed by noise unmatched in the normally staid and quiet game, from cheers to jeers and back again. A group of former Arizona State students from Minnesota return every year to lead the chorus of cheers and catcalls from the stands closest to the players on the left of the tee. And here's a hole completely surrounded by seating, either in the open stands or the rings of skyboxes above where the steady hum of social interchange would in itself exceed the sound emanating from around the average tournament tee box.

Thunderbird Jock Holliman has spent 12 years marshalling the 16th hole, which is not to say he has it under control. But he wouldn't want the atmosphere to be any other way.

"We keep it a hole for the people," says Holliman. "It's an electric atmosphere, unique to golf as far as I know. We try to prevent the . . . catcall[s], but we know we really can't do that consistently. I wouldn't want to change anything, really. This is an incredible place."

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