Martin Laird Leads Phoenix Open After Third Round

February 1, 2015

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are gone but the party goes on. Nothing personal, fellas, but you were hardly missed at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

It’s Saturday, so there’s a billion people out here. Or maybe only 150,000, I don’t know.

It’s the Phoenix Open and there is the 16th hole. Therefore, we’ve got more excitement than we can handle.

Saturday is the day when we don’t really care who is winning the WM Phoenix Open. We only care who got cheered, who got booed, who handed out party gifts, who played to the crowd and hey, where are those hot chicks headed?

For the record, Scotsman Martin Laird finished the third round with a three-shot lead over Brooks Koepka, Memorial Tournament champ Hideki Matsuyama and Mr. Iowa, Zach Johnson.

The roars Tiger and Phil would’ve likely provided today had they not missed the cut? Don’t worry, Francesco Molinari singlehandedly had them covered.

The likable Italian sparked a thunderous roar that was heard throughout the course in the middle of the day when he made a hole-in-one at the 16th, golf’s only stadium-enclosed golf hole and the place where crowds come to twist and shout and beers go to die.

Bowling has the Beer Frame. Golf has TPC Scottsdale’s 16th. Somebody’s trying give it a nickname — The Colosseum. Not bad. It might stick. It does feel a little like the Christians hitting golf shots for the pleasure of the lions at times. Gladiators, emperors, wild animals. Only Russell Crowe is missing.

Anyway, Molinari’s Shot Heard ‘Round the Foam carried with it unintended consequence. Maybe because Golf Channel has been replaying Tiger’s famous ace there from 1997 a hundred times and the chaotic scene that followed as beer cups and cans flew everywhere, fans subconsciously wanted to recreate that video moment. Molinari’s shot hit, spun back and dropped in the back of the cup, the roar went up. It was soon followed by plastic cups and plastic beer bottles thrown through the air. Those high-priced luxury box patrons? They’re just as excitable as the rowdies, apparently.

Brian Davis, who was paired with Molinari, still had to hit his shot. He had to wait for the craziness to die down.

“I was smiling but Brian had to wait a while to let the guys clear the green and the bunkers. I don’t know how to describe it. You have to see it. It was amazing for me to be there.”

There are a few places where a hole-in-one means even more than it would anywhere else. Most golfers would kill for one. But if you could pick one place for an ace, it would probably be at a famous spot such as the seventh at Pebble Beach, the 12th at Augusta National, the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon, the 16th at Cypress Point or, perhaps, the 16th at TPC Scottsdale during the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“It’s just my third hole-in-one in my life and to get one there, it is special,” Molinari said. “The reaction was something else.”

It has become the place to be in golf like no other. The hole itself is fairly nondescript. Just a medium-length par-3 with a crowned green and a couple of bunkers lurking. I played it again a few weeks ago when the grandstands were already up. It was kind of spooky, really, and when I pulled a lousy 9-iron into the left bunker, I almost imagined I heard boos. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my caddie, although I can’t prove it.

When Molinari was heading out to the range at 7 a.m. to finish up his second round, it was still pretty dark and there were already fans in view. “There were a few guys running towards the 16th green,” he said. “They had been waiting awhile.”

Saturday at the Phoenix Open, the 16th is the center of the golfing universe. Even Golf Channel acknowledged this by setting up its golf studio right there.

The legend of the 16th just keeps getting bigger. The stands are bigger. It’s starting to look like the old Tiger Stadium a little bit. It’s got the scoreboard running around the mezzanine front, like at a baseball game. There used to be an open section behind the green but it’s completely enclosed now.

It’s the place to be. Those guys Molinari spotted hurrying out to 16? They pale in comparison to the guys who climbed a fence Thursday night, sneaked onto the grounds and spent the night in the grandstands — in the rain! — in order to have front-row seats for Friday. They really did it because they emailed a photo of them in the rainy darkness to their buddy, who showed it around Friday to fellow spectators, including my wife, like a badge of honor.

Nuts, yes. Kind of cool, I suppose. And memo to security: Make a note.

Famous rich guy Mark Cuban camped out in the stands Saturday. He’s got a reputation for knowing what he’s doing.

Russell Knox had the first tee time for the third round and was first to hit when his threesome got to 16. “They sang the national anthem, which was cool,” Knox said. “Then I think I almost made it. I hit it to three feet and it looked like it shaved the edge of the hole. I love that. I hit it to three feet the first day, eight feet yesterday and three feet today. Something about that hole brings out the best of me.”

Something about it brings out some kind of reaction from everyone. Molinari, the Ace Hole of the Day Saturday, was inspired enough to toss his hole-in-one ball into the stands. Strangely enough, he wound up getting it back.

“The fans threw it back onto the green and nearly hit Brian Davis again,” Molinari said. “A volunteer raked it out of the bunker and gave it to me at the end of the round. It was nice to get it back. I don’t know if I will keep it or give it to someone. I wasn’t expecting to see it come back from the stands.”

It was different from the first ace he made as a pro. That one happened in Malaysia after a rain delay the previous day so he was playing at 7:15 in the morning.

“No one was there,” he said. “It was the opposite of today.”

The party went on as scheduled without Phil or Tiger. Bubba Watson put on a Russell Wilson Seahawks jersey and tossed signed visors into the stands, disregarding the Tour’s new policy against tossing gear to fans on that hole. Justin Thomas, a Tour rookie, made a birdie putt and immediately cupped a hand to one ear, and then the other hand to the other ear, to make sure he got the appropriate reaction from the crowd.

No need to beg, Rook. They’re going to roar. It’s guaranteed. But if you miss the green next time, prepare to get booed.

The tournament proper will resume Sunday. Then the scores and the standings and the race to the wire will matter. The fun will be more in the finish — the contenders who have the guts to go for the 15th green in two or the 17th green in one or are nervy enough to find the fairway at the 18th.

Zach Johnson, former Masters champ and frequent Ryder Cupper, will be one of the prime contenders Sunday. He was really pleased when he hit a superb bunker shot to two feet to save par at the 18th and stay tied for second, three shots behind Laird. That might prove to be a big shot on Sunday, even though few will remember it. Saturday, it was all about the 16th. Johnson was at the fourth tee when heard an extended roar from the distance. He didn’t know it was Molinari but he knew what it meant.

“We all looked at each other and said, That’s a one,” Johnson said.

It was. Too bad Tiger and Phil missed it.

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