SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA | It wasn’t exactly a polar vortex, but the first groups playing the Waste Management Phoenix Open had to layer up Thursday morning until the sun peeked over the Superstition Mountains. With the exception of some strong followings for a couple of marquee groups, crowds hadn’t arrived in full force until around 10 a.m. when the lines to get through security looked no different than those for an Arizona Cardinals game. The fans even arrive in matching jerseys to set the mood.
If players ever feel alone during the Phoenix Open, it’s usually during a rare moment early on Thursday or Friday. The tournament welcomed a record-breaking 719,179 people last year, smashing the previous mark of 655,434. That’s more than an entire season’s worth of attendance for an NFL team. The numbers have become so comically astronomical that the tournament is waving the white flag on reporting them. Just call it a mass of humanity ready to have a good time.
“We understand that we have the biggest event on the PGA Tour,” tournament chairman Chance Cozby said. “When you look out there, you know the attendance is big. But it’s just something that we don’t want to focus on going forward.”
If the numbers were officially recorded this year, there is reason to believe they would eclipse all other editions. The par-3 16th with its NASCAR-like arena may get all of the publicity, but now the par-4 17th features double-decker grandstands on both sides of the hole. Even the par-4 18th, the least exciting of the finishing holes, has an entire village of spectator areas running down both sides. Some 25-30 percent of the event’s spectators are crammed into those three holes.
“I can tell you that there is not a tournament on the PGA Tour schedule that has not been here and looked at every single facet and element of this tournament and tried to find some nuggets, find some ingredients to take back and apply into their own market.” — PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan
If you follow the PGA Tour around the country, you realize there are mini-Phoenix Open setups developing each year. Take the Honda Classic, which has made its final four holes – the par-3 17th in particular – into an energetic madhouse where there is a constant hum and more than a few misplaced hollers. That tournament’s attendance was 83,500 when the event first came to PGA National in 2007. Now it’s riding a rowdy atmosphere to more than 220,000 attendees.
Every tournament director in the country has realized how the Phoenix Open has leveraged its image to maximize attendance.
“I can tell you that there is not a tournament on the PGA Tour schedule that has not been here and looked at every single facet and element of this tournament and tried to find some nuggets, find some ingredients to take back and apply into their own market,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said before the tournament.
For that reason, tournaments are now concentrating on sponsored seating areas where patrons can spend an entire day. The Phoenix Open smartly has a DUI task force surrounding the property from Wednesday-Sunday this week and police officers are giving breathalyzer tests to departing attendees to monitor whether they are in condition to legally drive. The area for Uber pickups is so large you literally could build a par-3 on it.
It’s also no surprise that tour events with concerts headlined by well-known acts are commonplace – Jake Owen is playing this week, while the Valspar Championship just announced Brad Paisley will be at their event. The Travelers Championship has an entire concert series where the music begins right near the center of the course shortly after the last putt drops.
The way tour events build attendance has changed because the type of fan they are attracting has changed. Golf is often secondary. Wednesday at the Phoenix Open, the 16th hole featured a DJ blaring music that could be heard no matter where you were on the property. When Phil Mickelson came through the arena, he was incorrectly announced as the 2013 U.S. Open champion. Nobody flinched.
All of this is to say that large, rowdy galleries are becoming a big part of the game. It’s hard to imagine the crowds decreasing in size. And as they get larger, it’s hard to imagine their collective golf IQ is going to rise.
“You can’t go into those situations thinking you are going to hush the crowd. You know what it’s like before you play those holes. You just have to go up there and embrace it.” — Ryan Palmer
From a player’s standpoint, there’s interesting psychology at play when you deal with large galleries. It’s assumed by the layperson that, like a football or hockey team playing in front of a large crowd, there is a significant effect on a PGA Tour player.
To a man, they say that’s not the case. If you are playing in front of more people, it’s not any more difficult or any easier. It just means you are playing for something more important.
“If it was between 5,000 people watching me or five, I think we all would want the 5,000,” veteran tour player David Hearn said. “That means you are doing something right.”
For most of golf’s history, the sounds of a tournament have typically been total silence followed by a lion-like roar or a visceral groan. Now it’s more like a constant hum of chatter creating a white noise barrier in the background. Many are engaged and aware of their surroundings. Many are oblivious, viewing it more as a social event.
“You can’t go into those situations thinking you are going to hush the crowd,” tour player Ryan Palmer said. “You know what it’s like before you play those holes. You just have to go up there and embrace it.”
From a mental aspect, it’s actually easier to concentrate when there is a collection of voices as opposed to noises or movement that stands out. One person’s phone ringing in a quiet environment is far more distracting than several thousand people mumbling. Any athlete will tell you that it’s the single voices and sounds that make for difficult concentration. Music played at full blast is easier to handle.
“Players face both internal and external distractions when they are playing golf,” explains Dr. Patrick Cohn, a golf psychologist. “With these huge amphitheaters, it’s easier to take out the external distractions through the mumbling as opposed to having one guy yell at you. That can take a player totally off track. Now you may have to remove someone and there’s a guilt that comes with letting it affect you like that.”
There’s no removing anyone during the closing stretch at TPC Scottsdale. It’s all about taking in the hum, golf’s new normal soundtrack.
Rickie Fowler teed off in front of a capacity crowd at the 16th hole in the 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open. Photo: Allan Henry, USA Today Sports
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