Eight reasons to love the Phoenix Open

February 4, 2014

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — This is not your typical golf tournament. But of course, you already know that. The Waste Management Phoenix Open has always been golf’s biggest, loudest and wildest party. Also its only party since pro golf isn’t exactly Woodstock. Or even Lilith Fair.

Even so, I was mildly surprised when I decided to stretch my legs and walk TPC Scottsdale’s back nine on a Tuesday afternoon one year. Two minutes into the exercise — two minutes! — I passed a threesome of men behind the luxury suites along the 18th fairway and heard the tallest man ask the others, “Whadda you guys wanna do now? Ti–y bar?”

I doubt if those words have ever been uttered at the Masters, and certainly not at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday.

It was just a reminder that the Phoenix Open is one part golf tournament, one part football game and one part outdoor bar.

You’ve got to love the WMPO (as local headline writers call it) if for no other reason than that it totally shreds golf’s image as a safe, boring day in the park.

It’s not all beer and no foam, however. Just like at a football game, one obnoxious drunk spectator can ruin the experience for 30 others around him. That’s an occupational hazard. The Wasted Open, as some have dubbed it since the last sponsor change, deserves bonus points for originality. It is one of a kind party. And that, too, is probably a good thing.

Here’s my unofficial list of things to love about the Phoenix Open.

1. Bird’s Mess

The Bird’s Nest is the after-hours nightclub that packs ‘em after golf. It’s got nightly live music, live alcohol and live and glitzy singles mingling, sometimes with professional golfers. Officials moved it off the golf course grounds years ago because it got too big. Honestly, I haven’t visited it in a decade because the last time I was there, the speakers were deafening, I was pressed against a fence by a crush of people and the only way to get a drink was to be born near the bar, wherever that was.

The Bird’s Nest is behind player Kenny Perry’s oft-told story about checking into a local hotel and being asked by the desk clerk if he was playing in the tournament. He confirmed that he was and the woman replied, “Oh, I love the Phoenix Open. I go every night!”

2. Loudest hole in golf

The par-3 16th hole is overrated only because it’s not nearly as wild as it used to be. Watch Tiger Woods knock in an ace there in 1997 and watch the ensuing hurricane of beer cups and cans and debris fly through the air. There was a beer stand not far away then and fans could squeeze in right behind the tee box almost on top of the golfers. That only intensified the screaming that begins a nano-second after each golfer makes contact with his swing. Now it’s all surrounded by towering luxury suites inhabited by tamer big-money corporate swells.

Still, it’s loud on Saturday as 20,000-plus jam into stands that surround it. The irony is that the most exciting atmosphere in golf is located at a fairly nondescript par 3. You won’t confuse this hole with the island-green 17th at the Stadium Course.

3. Sideshow golf

It all happens at the 16th, of course. One year Irishman Padraig Harrington took a shot at punting and kicking some footballs into the stands. It wasn’t too different from soccer, he figured. Phil Mickelson scored some Arizona State University footballs from his brother, Tim, then the ASU golf coach, and showed off his arm one afternoon by flinging them into the stands. Well, most of them. He came up short at least once. Only Phil, a legend in these parts, could avoid serious booing for that minor glitch in form.

At the 16th, it’s all about feeding the animals and getting them on your side with gifts. Fans line up early to get front-row grandstand seats Saturday because with players tossing goodies to the crowd, a lucky spectator can go home with more door prizes than a “Let’s Make A Deal” contestant. It’s instant gratification. But if you miss the green with your tee ball, those gifts are for naught. You’re going to get booed. Which is such a novelty in golf that it’s almost refreshing.

4. Who are these people?

You can write a column just about the weird stuff you overhear on the course from spectators. One man on his phone: “Give my dog a kiss for me.” Another: “Blah-blah-transvestite-blah-blah…” A group of eight or nine guys dressed up in wildly-designed Loudmouth slacks and posed for pictures with spectators on request. A group of formal teens arrived practically prom-ready, the guys in suits and bowties and the girls in sun-dresses. Part of the fun, apparently, is calling attention to yourself. You probably already know about that if you’re on Facebook.

5. The fast track

The relatively recent tradition of caddies racing to the 16th green from the tee while lugging the bag is over. No-fun PGA Tour officials banned the practice. That didn’t stop Tour players Robert Garrigus and Morgan Hoffman from having their own track meet one afternoon at the 16th. They got a huge ovation for the effort, of course, when they pulled up just short of the green.

6. Zin-burgers and Thunderdogs

These rare food items resemble hamburgers and hot dogs but, as you can tell by the name, are far from ordinary. You can find them on the course or in the huge food court near the practice range. Which reminds me, let’s add one part packed mall to the tourney’s official description. A humdrum hot dog? No thanks. A Thunderdog? Why, yes, please. I’ll take two.

7. Philharmonic symphony

This is The House That Phil Built. Nobody packs in the crowds here like favorite son Phil Mickelson, a star at ASU and long-time Scottsdale resident. Wondering where Phil is right now? Just look for that huge battalion of fans roving the course. They’re with Phil. What, you thought they were following John Mallinger?

8. Mostly crowdy

Maybe the numbers are inflated. Probably they are. Phoenix Open attendance figures are estimated by counting parked cars and multiplying by 3.5, not actual turnstile count. Does it matter whether the numbers are accurate? C’mon, it looks like the Normandy Invasion out there. Seriously, no other tournament draws crowds even half this size. One reason is, no other tournament has places to park one-third this many cars. If you want to be alone, TPC Scottsdale is not the place to be.

The Phoenix Open is a staggering success, no matter how you look at it. It’s more fun if you’re not staggering, too, but at the TPC Scottsdale, that’s always optional.