SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA | Perhaps the unique charm of the Waste Management Phoenix Open was best summed up by a patron who, likely with a margarita in hand and music throbbing in the crowded Birds Nest gathering spot, said, “I love coming to the golf tournament on Friday night.”
Pebble Beach has the Pacific Ocean. Augusta National has Amen Corner. And Phoenix has a blast.
Golf, as you may have noticed, tends to take itself too seriously. It takes four years to change a rule. We can change presidents in that amount of time.
At some tournaments, stepping outside the box means having marshals raise signs that read, “Hush, y’all” rather than “Quiet, please.” Get crazy.
Then there is Phoenix.
Loud and proud.
And why not?
“They celebrate the spectators this week and that’s a nice thing,” said Padraig Harrington, who when he isn’t tinkering with his golf swing dispenses common sense in ideal doses.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating a midway of restaurants and bars touting whiskey shots and burritos at The Masters while Maroon 5 thumps in the air.
Pimento cheese sandwiches, Coca- Cola in green paper cups and a healthy respect for tradition work just fine off Washington Road.
But when the weather is sunny and 70, the grass is emerald green and the PGA Tour season is still fresh, Phoenix works. Like fettucine alfredo and Bill Maher monologues, you don’t want it every day but once in a while, it’s terrific.
At Phoenix, everything goes big. The parking lots are the size of small farms. There are logos that can be seen from the moon. The attendance sounds like NASCAR is doling out the numbers.
But people have fun.
Some people have too much fun based on tales players tell of amorous couples being asked to vacate the porta-potties around the famous 16th hole. So much for, uh, romance.
There is room in golf for the unconventional unless it involves anchoring or deer antler spray. Bubba Watson is unconventional. Rickie Fowler’s golf attire is unconventional. A 330-yard drive used to be unconventional.
Phoenix is a tournament directed by Quentin Tarantino, minus the gory stuff.
It’s where people – many of them in expensive jeans and two pieces too many of gold jewelry – are still arriving after play has ended each day. That’s how they can attract 179,022 fans on a Saturday, a new record.
At the center of it, if you weren’t able to hear the noise from wherever you were last week, is the par-3 16th hole. For 51 weeks a year, it’s a pretty mundane par-3 hole, like a few dozen other short holes in the desert.
On tournament week, it’s Gladiator for golfers. Surrounded on all sides by bleachers and more than 15,000 spectators, players are like Russell Crowe in the movie but instead of looking up at Joaquin Phoenix, they’re looking up at what must feel like half the population of greater Phoenix.
And many, perhaps most, are there for the refreshments more than the golf.
Robert Garrigus was once part of the 16th hole spectator scene. He was standing near the ropes in 1996 when a kid named Tiger Woods jarred it for an ace, setting off seismographs across the southwest.
“I might have been the first guy to throw a beer, I don’t know,” Garrigus said. “If I didn’t want to be a professional golfer right there, I wasn’t going to be one.”
Inspiration comes from odd corners.
A few years later, Garrigus was playing the 16th hole late in the day with a gallery of two over-served spectators. One guy yelled “My money is on you, Gargorilla,” as Garrigus hit his tee shot then wobbled the length of the hole barking at Garrigus the whole way. Garrigus remembers it fondly.
“You get the village idiot that comes out there and ruins it sometimes but it’s a lot of fun,” Garrigus said. “It’s what this tournament is about. That’s our little Super Bowl in there.”
It’s the only hole on Tour where players worry more about what they’re going to toss into the crowd than the shot they have to hit. If they’ll boo Michael Phelps – and they did on Wednesday – they’ll boo anyone.
Keegan Bradley thought he’d hear it from the 16th hole fans when he showed up with his belly putter. He was right.
It was how they reacted that surprised him.
“They love it,” Bradley said. “Maybe the USGA needs to go hang out on the 16th hole, the very pro-belly putter area.”
And maybe the USGA will have belly dancers at Merion in June, too.
Let Harbour Town have its lighthouse and boat basin. Let The Players Championship have its 17th hole. Let the Memorial Tournament have Jack Nicklaus.
And as they say at Phoenix, let’s have another.