Saturday, February 05, 2011

Nothing else in golf compares to the famed 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale during the Phoenix Open, but with the frigid temperatures (43 degrees at noon) on Thursday, the usually rowdy crowd was disappointingly well behaved. With slightly warmer temperatures on Friday, the fans were livelier and even a little disruptive, but they're probably saving their best for Saturday. I showed up to 16 around 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon and the mood was festive enough to give me a buzz.
Some highlights of the day:
*On the walk to No. 16, I passed the chipping practice area and spotted PGA Tour rookie Daniel Summerhays and second-year player Alex Prugh. (Both guys had the day off because of the frost delay on Thursday.) I stopped to ask about their first experience on 16.
"Honestly, I didn't get all that nervous," said Summerhays. "It was fun having so many people watching you hit a golf shot. It's amazing. I wasn't nervous walking to 16 because I was mad that I made par on 15. But it's a cool feeling when you're walking through that tunnel. It's like you're coming into an arena, like the gladiators, and you're coming out to fight. It was a little more docile yesterday. We just made three pars in our group, so the fans were like, 'OK, good job, guys. Get the next group out here.'"
*Prugh wasn't rattled either. "The taunts and booing doesn't really get to me," he said. "I was just more pissed I missed a four-footer. It's one of those things I can't wait to play tomorrow. It's what makes the tournament. My caddie told me later that people were chanting "Noonan," like from Caddyshack. Fortunately, I didn't hear it. I was just focusing on trying to birdie the next hole."
*I met Dan Fox, a member of the Thunderbirds charity group which organizes the tournament, on the 16th tee on Thursday, and he invited me to sit up in the box seats with him and his buddies Friday. (Not surprisingly it felt business-casual corporate, but I was happy to get a padded seat and waitress service.) Dan says if you want to do business in Scottsdale/Phoenix this week, you have to be at the tournament because no one is at work.
*The first group I watched was Brandon Smith, Tommy Gainey and Chris Kirk. When Smith, an alum of University of Arizona, approached the tee, fans in the boxes on the right side of the tee chanted, "U of A! U of A!" He raised his arm up to silence them and they politely settled down. He pulled his tee shot and his ball was headed toward the left bunker, but he got a lucky bounce right (which doesn't typically happen because everything funnels left) and ended up on the fringe about 20 feet from the back-left pin. Initially, fans chanted "ASU! ASU" because they thought he hit a poor shot, but after it turned out well, they chanted, "U of A!" again. Smith threw his arms up in celebration. His caddie handed Smith his bag and sprinted to the green because the fans in the stands by the green play "caddie races," where they bet on which caddie touches the green first.
*Fox thinks Saturday afternoon will produce the largest crowd ever. "It's still a little tame," he said. "Everyone is waiting to be here tomorrow because of the cold weather the past few days. Tomorrow afternoon the TPC Scottsdale will be the third largest city in Arizona."
*When Michael Putnam, whom I've known since I was 14 from sharing the same swing coach, approached the tee, I had everyone around me yell, "Putty!" He looked over, saw me and shook his head while laughing. (He gives me a hard time like a big brother, so this was a small form of payback.) Apparently he was a little rattled because he pulled his shot into the bunker. Then he skulled it out to the other side of the green. Fans near the green yelled, "I smell 5!"
*The group of Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Geoff Ogilvy were next on the tee. After Ogilvy knocked one in the left bunker (I swear, it's like a magnet over there), he tossed his club at his bag in disgust. Boos ensued (because of the shot).
Dustin Johnson hit it to 12 feet, the closest I saw all day. Walking down the fairway, he passed out a few TaylorMade hats to the crowd. "No, I wasn't trying to bribe them," Johnson laughed after play was suspended due to darkness. "Everyone gets a little nervous, but it was good. They were pretty good to me today."
After Mahan's tee shot came up short, he had a chip, which he caught it a little heavy and left 12-feet short. I spoke to a group of guys in the stands who said they discussed yelling, "Ryder Cup," but decided it was too cruel.
*When anyone hit a poor first putt, the crowd yelled, "Three-putt!"
*During Anthony Kim's backswing, someone in the skybox seating shouted, "Shank!" The marshal by the 16th tee said tournament organizers couldn't find the culprit, but they had an APB out on him. Good luck with that.
*I stopped to talk to some fans, including brothers Kelly and Neal Degenstein from Anchorage, Alaska, who attend the Phoenix Open every year. "I'm an older guy hanging around a bunch of younger guys full of enthusiasm, having a blast, and I'm feeling younger myself," said Kelly. Added Neal: "This whole tournament is spectacular and we're loving it. We come down specifically for the Phoenix Open from Alaska."
*Says Andy Bednar from Las Vegas: "This atmosphere is the best in the country. No matter what, it's hands-down the best tournament experience you can ever be in. I've been talking a lot of s---. Anytime a player misses a green, I'm automatically booing them because I know I can hit a 9-iron closer than them."
*I ambushed several players trying to flee the course after play was supsended due to darkness:
Davis Love III: "It was real quiet when I went through. Nice and boring. I didn't hit a good shot, but they didn't boo because I think they were still frozen."
Ryuji Imada: "We were the last group on 16 today, so there were only 50 people. Nothing really interesting happened. It's a fun hole if you hit a good shot. I get excited about playing the 16th. I wouldn't say I get nervous. I get more mad (at the fans)."
Nick Watney missed the green, but then chipped in for birdie. "I got booed on the tee because I missed the green," said Watney. "I didn't hear anything too offensive on the tee. I heard a guy yell that I'm a handsome man, which I didn't really understand. I've never heard that before from a golf crowd."
Mark Wilson: "I played with Jerry Kelly and Rocco Mediate, and the fans love Rocco. They were screaming and hollering for Rocco. But yeah, nothing crazy this time. I've learned to just enjoy them and it's really fun if you just embrace the situation." I asked if Wilson heard anything crazy today. "No, they always like to throw in my birthday because I was born on Halloween. I always hear that one every year, so hopefully they'll come up with something a little bit more unique."
I hope so, too. I'm camping out by the 16th tee on Saturday afternoon and looking forward to seeing what kind of dirt the fans have dug up on Google. There's a reason why the Phoenix Open produces the highest attendance numbers on the PGA Tour — a golf tournament is a lot cooler when it's a party.
 

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