SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The party’s on a bit later than usual and with a new title sponsor at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Formerly the FBR Open, the raucous event drew more than a half-million fans last year. A scheduling conflict pushed the tournament back, for this year only, from its usual Super Bowl week date.
Phil Mickelson, who skipped last week’s Match Play Championship for a family vacation, is a fixture at the Phoenix Open and has won twice, in 1996 and 2005. He attended Arizona State and lived for a time in Scottsdale.
“It’s just a special tournament,” Mickelson said, “and I think guys that have gone to ASU and lived hear, grown up here, this is really a neat event. It provides an experience that you just don’t get week in and week out.”
The tournament, in its 75th year, begins a four-day run on Thursday at TPC Scottsdale with a forecast of rain late in the week threatening to dampen huge weekend crowds, by far the biggest on the tour.
The apex of the party atmosphere comes at the par-3 16th hole, where a crowd estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 at its peak surrounds the players as if it was a football stadium. Players walk through a tunnel to be greeted by chants and songs aimed at their alma mater or home country.
The fans cheer the great shots, and in a blatant – gasp – violation of golf decorum, loudly boo the bad ones. It was here that Tiger Woods was showered by beer when he hit a hole in one in 1997. Woods hasn’t played in the tournament since 2001, when an orange was thrown across a green while he was getting ready to putt.
Instead, he opted for the big money offered in Dubai.
“I think it was pretty intimidating at first,” defending champion Kenny Perry said of the scene at No. 16. “… You listen to the young kids in the locker room, and a lot of people don’t come here because of that hole. They won’t play here because they don’t want them yelling at them and stuff.”
But, Perry said, “most of the guys really enjoy it. It’s only one hole a year. We really don’t have this kind of atmosphere anywhere else on the PGA Tour.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem called the atmosphere “unique.”
“I don’t think it comes as a shock that we’ve had years where we’ve had some concerns about the, you know, pushing the edge a little bit in terms of the atmosphere that’s created,” Finchem said.
For instance, in 1999 a drunken man hollering at Woods was found to be carrying a loaded gun.
But Finchem said the tournament sponsor Thunderbirds “have done a terrific job in the last number of years” in keeping things under control.
The Thunderbirds, the commissioner said, “have a big event with an awful lot of people, have tremendous enthusiasm for the play, significant decibel levels, but at the same time maintain an atmosphere that the guys can play golf, and that’s not an easy challenge.”
Finchem said tour officials are “very comfortable with what’s happening here now.”
The biggest crowds, topping 150,000, are on Saturday. But a 50 percent chance of rain, possibly with thunderstorms, is forecast for that day, although it could hold off until the evening.
Perry defeated Charley Hoffman to win last year on the same day the Arizona Cardinals played Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Perry went on to win the Travelers Championship for his 14th PGA Tour victory.
“I heard `defending champ’ all the way from the first tee to the last tee,” Perry said after his pro-am round on Wednesday. “That’s always a special feeling. It’s even hard to win one tournament, and when you do finally get a win at a place, how everybody supports you is pretty special.”