The February stop in Scottsdale, known today as the FBR Open, is simply the most raucous, outrageous, unruly four-day golf competition anywhere
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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."
In 1997, Holliman's two sons were carrying the scoring placard for Tiger Woods's group. Woods made a hole in one at the 16th that year, setting off what might have been the single loudest noise bomb in the history of the game; even Tiger's celebration is the stuff of highlight reels today. Spectators showed their appreciation for the feat by throwing beer bottles and cans onto the 16th's tee box much the way hockey fans toss caps to applaud a hat trick. That caused the Thunderbirds to change the way they served beer, going to plastic cups. The move had a twofold purpose: to avoid injury to players and other spectators, and to limit how much beer a spectator could transport at one time.
"With the cans you could stuff them in your pockets and maybe carry a six-pack with you," says Lewkowitz. "It's a little messy to stuff a cup of beer in your pocket."
The 16th hole usually plays shorter than its 162-yard length, but no hole with the possible exception of the par-3 17th at the TPC Sawgrass, with its infamous island green, plays with a player's mind as much, though at Scottsdale the reasons have little to do with the shot values of the hole.
"It's an 8-iron," says Rocco Mediate, Tiger Woods's foil at the 2008 U.S. Open and his conqueror at the 1999 Phoenix Open. "Seriously, that's all it is, an 8-iron. But if you let [the crowd] get to you, they will. I interact with them. I give them shit, they give me shit. I wish we had something like this every week. I love it.
"We are entertainment. That's what we are doing. So when you have something like the 16th, it's about entertaining people and in turn about ticket revenue and raising money for the sponsors and the charities. It's all good." In 1999, the year that fans famously helped Woods by rolling a large rock out of his line of play after he hit a drive into a waste area on the par-5 13th, Mediate had the last laugh. "On 16 I hit it 30 feet past and putted that eight feet past. This guy hollers, 'You're choking!' Tiger's going to take you down,'" Mediate said. "I knocked it in and just pointed at him. That's the way it is there."
That group of former ASU students take the lead, calling out for players to acknowledge them. "Tip your hat, tip your hat," they call to Woody Austin. "Don't have to worry about water here," they yell, mindful of the fact that Austin fell into a water hazard during the 2007 Presidents Cup matches in Montreal.
"The people on 16 want you to acknowledge them," says player Chris DiMarco. "If you acknowledge them, tip your cap or wave or do a high-five along the stands, they will tend to be on your side. If you ignore them, they can really get on you."
It wasn't always this way at the 16th. Gary McCord, who commentates on the hole for CBS broadcasts of the event and lives nearby, remembers that it was just another par 3 when the tournament moved to the course in 1987. Then a beer tent popped up. "It was in the middle of nowhere," says McCord. "Then in the early '90s, I noticed some young kids from ASU coming out here. College students, outdoors, beer. The right combination. There was a TGIF tent behind the green and a mound about 60 feet away. Kids, beer, mound, that's all they needed. They weren't saying to themselves, 'Gee, 16 is a great hole.' It was a beer tent, a mound and sunshine."
"McCord is the perfect person to be in charge of the asylum," says his CBS cohort, David Feherty. "He's the perfect lunatic."
Feherty has seen his share of goings-on at the 16th, including a landslide, or would that be a manslide?
"About eight years ago there was this open spot on the hill to the back right of the tee between the two grandstands," says Feherty. "There was this big fat guy at the top of the hill drinking beer and wearing cowboy boots. The guy slips at the top of the hill and starts sliding down, taking the people in front of him out. It was like watching an avalanche. He must have taken out 80 people, and some at the bottom rolled in a barrel cactus, which wasn't pretty. I remember seeing those cowboy boots at the bottom of the hill after the avalanche was over."
There are occasions when hospitality becomes downright hostile-tality at the 16th. When fans are betting among themselves, betting with the marshals, on who will hit the green, who will be closest to the pin, who will make birdie, it can get rough. "You couldn't have another hole like it," says McCord. "The players find it fun, most of them, but only once a year."
"A player's mood at 16 depends on what he did at 15," says Feherty of the preceding par-5 hole where an eagle and double bogey are equally possible because of a water hazard. "You make eagle there, you walk into the 16th and say, 'Yes, my people, I am here.' You make a bogey and you walk in with the attitude of 'Shut up, you -----.'"
In back of the stands behind the green at 16 is a souvenir shop that sells T-shirts that celebrate the hole with slogans such as "What do you mean there are seventeen other holes?" or "I came for a party but a golf tournament broke out."
The party certainly reaches its most raucous at the 16th, but by no means is the fun confined to here. You measure the festivities at the Phoenix Open in acres, not square feet. The impressively sized Greenkeeper near the clubhouse serves food and drinks to thousands of people several hours a day, even though the course is barely visible from the facility. The clubhouse terrace is a prime viewing, eating and drinking spot, and a large selection of cigars is available—Fuente, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Rocky Patel, Partagas and La Aurora were on offer this year—at what is likely the most cigar-friendly stop on the Tour.
But you really must go to the Bird's Nest, a massive tent about a half mile from the course where every night adult beverages flow with the force of the Colorado River and rock bands entertain up to 10,000 people. The tent in 2009 covered 7.3 acres, and hosted crowds that throbbed to such bands as O.A.R, Duck Soup and MetalHead, as well as a continuous array of scantily clad female dancers. And this year there was even a hookah pipe lounge there. Don't think you'll see that any time soon in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National.
Tour caddie Mark Huber remembers when the Bird's Nest, much smaller then, was on the course not far from the putting green. "All the girls would walk past," says Huber. "The pros would practice putting and they didn't care. They all practiced putting in the same direction, looking at the walkway there." You can still find a bunch of caddies and a few young Tour players at the Bird's Nest nearly every night.
"The Bird's Nest raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity on its own," says Thunderbird Darren Wright, who was the facility's chairman for 2009. "You don't have to care about golf. You just want to have a good time, and in doing so you benefit people."
Yes, in the tens of thousands of people who attend every day, in the 150,000 or so people who attend on Saturday, are the highest percentage of spectators on the PGA Tour who don't know the difference between a tee and a green. It doesn't matter, either. They are here for the party, and everywhere they turn, it's going on.
The tournament, and the 16th hole itself (which is sometimes called The House That Phil Built), is testimony to Arizona State grad Phil Mickelson's local star power. But the tournament now feeds off itself as a place where bare chests meet bare midriffs, where the overlapping grip is more likely to be used for a cup of beer and a Thunderdog from the hot dog stand near the 16th bleachers run by longtime Thunderbird Martin Calfee.
"This tournament has always been about having fun," says Calfee. "We've had the best here: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson. "We've had great tournaments. I come back here and run this hot dog stand every year and I don't get to see a lot of golf. I tell my wife it's fun. And it is. That's what we want it to be for everyone."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.