The usual pandemonium outside the ropes at the Waste Management Phoenix Open will seem like a serene stroll through an uninhabited wasteland compared to what’s coming later this month. Not only will the tournament coincide with a little thing called the Super Bowl in town during the same week, but a certain 14-time major champion has added his name to the entry list.
This won’t be a keg party anymore. It’ll be Woodstock.
First is the fact that, as golf’s resident creature of habit, Woods has made a practice of crossing tourneys off his annual schedule, not adding them. As folks from Silvis, Ill., to Kapalua, Hawaii, will attest, once he’s gone, there’s no changing his mind – even if he does need the “reps,” as he so often insists.
More shocking is that he’s returning to golf’s biggest party. For a guy who likely breathes a sigh of relief in the solitude of such unique confinements as Augusta National’s 12th green, far from any spectators, choosing to hang with a half-million strangers for the week is more than a bit quizzical – even if he does have some sweet seats on the 50-yard line that Sunday evening.
When it was rumored last month that Tiger was contemplating a return to the most raucous PGA Tour stop for the first time in 14 years, I started doing a little digging into exactly why he originally removed it from his schedule.
After all, this was the site of what is still one of his most famous shots in a career filled with ‘em – a 9-iron at the boisterous 16th hole that two-hopped into the cup for an ace, followed by the requisite fist-pumps and high-fives and raise-the-roofs. The surrounding gallery was so delirious with excitement that many fans could merely scream at the top of their lungs and launch their beers into the air, a shower of suds and cups forming the background as Tiger pushed two hands skyward in celebration.
Two years later, his tee shot on the par-5 13th came to rest behind a boulder. No worries, though. Woods and then-caddie Mike Cowan famously enlisted a handful of spectators to move the not-so-loose impediment. He reached the green in two, made birdie and even got the stingy USGA to admit that no rule had been violated in the process.
With memories like those, why would he ever want to leave?
Well, because those weren’t the only memories. There were other memories, too, less fond ones.
Over the years, they’ve become the stuff of myth. The kind of memories golf fans recount to each other while hoisting a cold beverage at the 19th hole.
Like that time – the same year as the boulder episode – when a squawking heckler following Woods was detained by security personnel and found to have a gun in his possession. That would be enough to unnerve any player, but especially one who had received his share of death threats in those early days.
Or, two years later, when Tiger was on the putting green and had an orange hurled in his direction. Just a few inches closer, legend has it, and he could have not only been injured, but shone a spotlight on the potential dangers of athletes plying their craft in front the untamed masses.
So, why would he ever stop going to Phoenix? Perhaps the better question is: Why would he ever come back?
Because, as one longtime tournament official recently told me, those incidents have been wildly exaggerated over time.
“Like fish stories,” this official scoffed, “the heckler and orange stories seem to get embellished as the years go on.”
The heckler? Well, yes, he was yelling in the direction of Woods, but never pulled out the firearm nor did he threaten to shoot. In fact, Scottsdale police officers quickly approached the man and found the gun tucked away in his fanny pack. If there’s a less menacing way to carry a weapon, I’ve never heard of it.
The orange? It wasn’t hurled directly at Woods. In fact, it wasn’t hurled at all. It was rolled across the practice green by a teenager – hardly an innocent act, but not quite as malicious as the folklore would have us believe.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be a target this time around – at least for some verbal abuse. As one PGA Tour veteran told me upon hearing the news that Woods will compete, “I’ve been going there for five years now, and it’s gotten worse every year.”
“It” refers to the atmosphere surrounding the tournament, which set a single-week attendance record of 563,008 last year; “worse” refers to the collective buzz that envelops the action, a party where the traditional courtesies of golf are defiantly ignored.
Following his 2009 victory, Kenny Perry recalled meeting a woman who lived nearby. When he asked whether she attended the event each year, she excitedly responded, “Oh yes, I go there every night!”
Point being, everything is flipped upside-down in Phoenix, where birdies and bogeys take a backseat to the rowdiness. Not only does this tournament generate more spectators than any other by a long measure, it also leads the circuit in both booze and boos – one leading, ultimately, to the other.
Woods knows this. Even if his memory is hazy after all these years, even if the tournament has grown monumentally in stature since then, he understands the absolute anarchy that his mere presence will incite.
Golf’s biggest party is about to get much, much bigger.