In 1997 I took a position on one of the rocks on the tee box of the rowdy 16th Hole at the TPC Scottsdale for over three hours watching twosome after twosome arrive up the embankment, through the crowd to the tee. I was working on a story for a national magazine about the uniqueness and scale of the scene. Many of the fans were assembled on the large mound behind the green known then as “Sun Devil Hill” since the majority of fans were either ASU graduates, students or just locals. It was pure theater, providing moments unlike any other Tour event I had covered. Some of the commentary was pure hilarity. An example: Nick Price and Ted Tryba were paired together. Teddy was a good looking young man from Ohio State, every hair in place, neatly dressed, sun tanned. As Nick addressed his ball and was about to pull the trigger, a guy yelled from deep on the hill, “Hey Teddy! Just give me one of your throw aways.” Price buckled over in laughter and needed to compose himself to make another attempt. Not long after that the Omar Uresti – Tiger Woods duo were on the tee. Uresti stuck it to two feet, easily the best shot of the day and the crowd roared. Up stepped the 21 year-old Woods, not yet a major champion and struck his 9-iron. Soon as he hit the ball the roars went up and then his ball hopped twice and disappeared in to the cup, and all hell broke loose. He aced it, the most incredible hole in one ever, definitely the loudest! They said the thunder could be heard in Buckeye, 40 miles west. In seconds, the tee was pelted with cups, beer cans, sodas, half smoked cigars and other debris. I couldn’t escape the showering and soon smelled like I had spent the afternoon at the Coach House in Old Town. The 16th was already gaining its reputation but that Saturday was the coronation.
After that amazing Saturday, the hearty souls know as the Thunderbirds have developed the atmosphere into a stadium where walking just outside of it sounds like you’re walking into a football or baseball game. This year I almost experienced a lifetime exacta when local hero Phil Mickelson almost duplicated Tiger’s feat of “97 coming within inches his own ace. It is definitely the place to be on the course but there is a whole lot more to this extravaganza making it the “Greatest Show on Grass!”If you wish to be young again I suggest you attend the Phoenix Open, known now as the Waste Management Phoenix Open, or to some locals, the Wasted Open. As someone who has now attended 25 of these festivals in Scottsdale, which also features a golf tournament, unless you are in attendance all you know is fantasy. In fact, for many in attendance it is fantasy. I have said this many times before and I will say it again, if you haven’t been to the Phoenix Open you have no idea what you’re missing. For one day it is the Happiest Place on Earth,
For the Valley of the Sun, the Waste Management Phoenix Open represents their Kentucky Derby, Indy 500 or Mardi Gras. They have actually shared the stage twice now with the Super Bowl when the largest attendance was achieved, until this year. While eventual winner Phil Mickelson was chasing records on the course, the Thunderbirds were setting them. At this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, day one was highlighted by Phil chasing the illusive 59, while outside the ropes guys were chasing skirts. Phil is the adopted son of Scottsdale having gone to Arizona State University in nearby Tempe. He has won this event three times now, shot 60 once before and is loved by all. So after his amazing opening round that should have been 59 or even 58 horse shoeing out on his last hole for 60, add in Chamber of Commerce weather, a new generation of partiers and a few people who wish to see golf on a course that was constructed solely for the purpose of offering unobstructed views, records can be and were set. Most golf tournaments would be pleased to get that many for the week! Golf has concerns on how to get people into the game, well they should take a page from the Thunderbirds who get more people assembled for a week on the PGA Tour by such an extraordinary margin it’s astounding! I’m still shocked that no other Tour stop has tried to swipe their mantra. It’s not rocket science but you need the right venue and the right attitude, which the affluent Thunderbirds possess, a willingness to let people have a blast.
As is customary for the “Greatest Show on Grass,” it really gets going on Friday afternoon when all the attitude adjustments are handled, costumes are flowing, girls begin hiding those big rocks on their fingers and hundreds make new friends. Fans come from everywhere, SoCal, NorCal, Seattle as well as many from the Midwest. This year the Saturday crowds arrived early, much to do with the fact that Lefty was leading the way. The mass that was expected all week did their best to imitate Mardi gras both in dress and alcohol consumption, yet many were there to actually see the best golfers.
The crowd for Friday set a record for that day at 120,719. Looking ahead to Saturday the buzz was that the all-time attendance of 175,000 was in jeopardy due to the Phil factor and a weather report that makes those in the hinterlands grievously jealous. Believe me the people in Phoenix don’t need an excuse to party, but this weekend each year brings out the best in them. How the number is determined is somewhat questionable but who cares. Supposedly the math works like this. They fly over the entire parking areas and multiply the number of cars by 3 and ½ people per auto. I must say that is a believable hypothesis. Giant tour buses continue to drop the throng off at the entrance all day into the night as those who don’t make it o the course get set to rock the night away at the infamous Bird’s Nest. Believe me. If you have not attended the Phoenix Open, you’re seriously missing out on one of America’s most unique assemblies. I know I said that before but it worth repeating.
It was definitely thick at 16 and all around 15 green where the youthful exuberance was on full display in beads, little skirts, funky hats, 80’s band themed wigs and high amperage volume. The growth of the 16th hole has expanded to include so many sky boxes (177 this year) that public seating represents about only 25 percent of the estimated 15,000 plus that encompass the hole, soaking up the desert sun and the beverage, ah excuse me, beverages of their choice. For at least the last ten years the 16th has been totally enclosed with bleacher seating available on a first come, first serve basis. On Saturday they were full by 10 am and lines extended so long you would have thought the Beatles were getting back together. The usual rowdies, a very fun bunch, many from Minnesota that keep up the Sun Devil Hill tradition on the left off the tee were already well lubricated but as they have for years acting with the courtesy the tournament has come to appreciate. In between groups, the lads in the bleachers were yelling up to those privileged to be in the upper deck suites things like, “Kiss that girl! Kiss that girl,” until there request was answered. It then turned to “Chug that beer!” And again they were obliged. “It’s just another year,” said Jocko Holliman who mans the microphone attempting, yes you heard me, attempting to quiet the crowd while players are on the tee and has so for 15 years. “I love it. They’re good kids, really. This year we actually took away a couple of rows from their bleachers for more sky box seating but we gave them their own restrooms and entrance. They said it was the best year ever.”
Much goes on at the 16th that includes harmless gambling on the caddies and players. Bets are placed all around the hole wagered by fans on which caddie will arrive at the green first, first bag put down or who pulls the pin. Caddies race to the green. Last year, young star and heartthrob Rickie Fowler emptied a box of his trademark Puma hats, green of course in concert with the Waste Management theme. He missed the cut this year but Bubba Watson stepped in and showered the fans with black and green Ping visors. Other players threw various trinkets into the stands. The best be far was when Irishman Padraig Harrington went about booting official NFL footballs into the seats, the first of which was field goal style. You won’t see that at Augusta.
Over the years I have questioned whether 16 is better today or fifteen years ago when “Sun Devil Hill,” evoked that unique kind of theater only seen at Scottsdale. But now it is so much more grandiose. A spectacle for sure and for those willing to pony up the rent, a nice perk. “In ’09,’10 and ‘11, we were definitely down a little due to the economy,” said Holliman. “We rebounded last year selling 146 skyboxes and this year with 177 sold on this hole alone, it is spectacular.” And although the Thunderbirds do not like to discuss money, it is pretty well assumed that the 16th hole alone drives about $7 million plus in revenue for the week. A lot of money changes hands in these skyboxes, many of it in tips to the corps of beautiful and shockingly well endowed ladies pouring drinks, making it the ultimate Hooters.
While the 16th is what it is, there are an abundance of mounds and bleachers for viewing. Last year, the once very exclusive Greenskeeper tent, the toughest ticket to get was deployed away from the main concourse and over to the lake on 18. This allowed the regular Joe to regal in the massive food court it once shared. Skyboxes on the back nine offer a great fan experience with the right ticket. One hot spot is high on the right bank of the 18th fairway where the popular “Tilted Kilt,” a popular chain of saloons where the waitresses are clad in tartan skirts and low cut tops, that Catholic school girl look. They set up a bar for the week that is open to the public and the public came. This year the tournament also saw the debut of its Patriots Pavilion located just off the 18th tee where military personnel and their families were hosted by the Thunderbirds. With huge crowds nightly and headliners like country star Dierkes Bentley, O.A.R. and Metalhead rocking into the night, the Bird’s Nest was like its old self, sort of like me.
As Hal Sutton once so famously quipped,” Ya know there is golf tournament out here somewhere,” golf was played and people’s champion Phil Mickelson didn’t disappoint going onto win in near record fashion shooting 28 under to capture his 41st PGA Tour victory. “I love playing here, having lived here for some ten years and have a lot of friends here,” said the champion. “It’s one of my favorite events of the year and winning it now three times is special.” Brandt Snedeker finished runner-up for the second week in a row. Not bad huh? You play great and you get beat by Tiger one week and Phil the next.
They announced that over 179,000 attended on Saturday. The weather was stellar. The attendants were amazing and the Thunderbirds chalked up another success with over 500,000 attending for the week meaning that’s a lot of money raised for charity. It’s a show, the “Greatest Show on Grass.” Like I said earlier, if you haven’t ….. As I was driving back to California I was thinking that maybe they should hold the Ryder Cup at the TPC Scottsdale. Wow! Now that would be golf on deer antler spray!