SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The confluence of events at golf’s biggest party nearly reached an all-time high last year. This was Saturday afternoon at TPC Scottsdale’s infamous 16th hole, the bewitching hour for boisterousness as the most well attended tournament in the world was getting ready to wind down for the day. Or more to the point, the partygoers were preparing for the afterparty.
Favorite son Phil Mickelson, playing in the final group, had already been leading for three days, in itself enough to cause an even more frenzied atmosphere than usual. Then he stepped up to the tee box and hit a shot to within inches of the hole. It paled in comparison to Tiger Woods’ iconic hole-in-one and awkward raise-the-roof celebration from 1997, but only slightly. Pandemonium ensued, the 15,000 spectators surrounding the hole unable to contain their enthusiasm.
“They were excited, let’s put it that way,” said Keegan Bradley, who was playing in that final group. “Which they should have been – he’s their guy, he’s playing well, he’s going to win the tournament, he almost hit a hole-in-one. It was loud and crazy. I was playing with Bill Haas. We had a few things thrown at us.”
Haas doesn’t recall any specifics of that moment – which speaks volumes about the 16th hole, that having things thrown at a competitor doesn’t even register on the annoyance scale – but he does remember an incident from the same hole earlier in the week.
“A grown man punched a marshal in the face and took him to the ground, right by the tee,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like a 20-year-old college kid who was too drunk. It was somebody’s dad. And it was all because the marshal told him to be quiet, so he punched him.”
All of which should lead to one potentially incendiary question: Have the Waste Management Phoenix Open crowds – more specifically, those rowdy, alcohol-induced galleries at the 16th hole – gotten out of hand?
Call it the clichéd example of a few bad apples spoiling the entire bunch. After all, there aren’t a few thousand grown men punching marshals in the face, but really, it only takes one to shine the spotlight on the drawbacks of throwing a party within the confines of a golf tournament.
According to PGA Tour officials, the event will sustain increased security measures this week, but only because every event on this year’s schedule is undergoing these enhancements.
“Coming out of the terrible tragedy in Boston at the marathon last April, we stepped up our annual review of security programs to make sure they’re sufficient to provide a reasonable level of safety to our players, fans and volunteers,” said Andy Pazder, EVP and Chief of Operations for the PGA Tour.
This included beefing up a wanding policy for every person entering tournament grounds that was previously only strongly encouraged toward individual events, but has now been instituted as mandatory protocol.
That goes for PGA Tour players, too. One competitor in this week’s event was stopped by a security guard who demanded he leave behind the divot-repair tool in his pocket. “Fine,” the player shot back, “but you’re going to have to come fix my ball marks.”
Gone, too, are the caddie races, which had become a staple on the 16th hole. For years, fans had placed wagers in the bleachers as to which looper would reach the green first, unbeknownst to them. Those unassuming walks turned into mild jogs, then all-out sprints, eventually peaking – or bottoming out, according to Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters – with brothers Kip and Brent Henley hilariously racing each other to the delight of the crowd. Their rivalry-driven chase garnered so much attention that it topped Mickelson’s near-ace in one national sportscast’s top plays of the day.
Those races have now been banned, but according to officials it’s not for stealing the spotlight from actual play.
“We’re not doing the caddie races out of an abundance of concern for the caddies’ health,” Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s EVP of communications, explained in a comment that left more than a few caddies on the TPC Scottsdale range unable to contain their giggling.
Other than that, though, the 16th-hole hysteria will continue as always this week – marshal-punching notwithstanding.
It will still be golf’s biggest party, still the loudest, most raucous atmosphere in the game. Some tournaments might not get 15,000 spectators for an entire day; the 16th alone garners that many for all four tournament rounds, no problem.
Sometimes that means a line will be crossed, but it’s striking that balance which leaves officials keeping a close eye on the festivities each year.
“We carefully monitor what goes on at the Waste Management Phoenix Open from a fan standpoint,” Pazder said. “We want our fans to have fun, but we want them to also be respectful of our players and caddies. We want those out there to watch golf and do that in an environment that’s family friendly, not excessively profane. We don’t want the rowdiness to detract from it being a terrific community event.”
In this respect, the players agree – even those who have endured things thrown at them during the course of play.
“Once a year, on that hole, you’re ready for it; you’re ready to accept it,” Bradley concluded. “It’s tough to control the 16th, but they do the best they can.”