One of our most iconic sporting events was played last week in Phoenix, an over-the-top extravaganza in which the spectacle is as much a part of the story as the athletic competition. The Super Bowl was in town too. That little football game generated slightly higher TV ratings, but the Phoenix Open was at least as big a deal locally. The attendance at the Bowl was 70,288, which would be considered pitiful box office at the Open: For the four tournament rounds the average crowd exceeded 110,000, and across the week a record 564,368 fans turned out, despite chilly temperatures on Thursday and persistent rain on Friday. The golf and football created what Phil Mickelson called “nice synergy” at TPC Scottsdale. All manner of team colors were on display in the gallery, though allegiances skewed heavily toward Seattle. Joe Skovron, Rickie Fowler’s caddie, tweeted on Saturday, “If the @WMPhoenixOpen is any indication for the game tmrw it is going to be like a home game 4 the Sea Chickens. 12th man is everywhere.” A handful of players donned partisan jerseys to play the 16th hole, the par-3 bacchanalia at which the ever-boisterous gallery kept a running dialogue with any golfer who had a connection to the big game. How often did Ryan Moore, a Seattle native, hear Super Bowl talk? “Oh, every hole,” he says. “It was actually easy to tune it out because it was so nonstop.”
Keegan Bradley, the archetype of the obnoxious New England fan, was at the center of endless woofing, much of it in the locker room from those eager to bet against his Patriots. “I’m taking on all comers,” Bradley said. Throughout the week he seemed more concerned with how he would get to the game than with trifling matters such as birdies and bogeys. (In fairness, he finished a respectable 17th.) There was talk for a while of chartering a helicopter, but on Sunday afternoon Bradley piled into a hired SUV with, among others, Jordan Spieth and Brendan Steele.
They arrived shortly before kickoff, well after Michael Putnam, a Tacoma native who finished 30th in the Open, had settled into his seat in section 115, along with his father, Dan, and two friends. Putnam had already attended five Seattle games this season, and he’s become so tight with the team that Seahawks wideouts Jermaine Kearse and Bryan Walters came out to TPC Scottsdale early in the week to see him in his office. Putnam lucked into a ticket connection two weeks ago during the pro-am at the Humana, and all told he wound up dropping $11,000 for his first trip to the big game. Money well spent? “Are you kidding me? I’m pumped!” Putnam said early on Sunday afternoon while briskly packing his golf bag, which included a white 12th Man towel with his initials on it. Following New England’s 28–24 victory, Putnam said by way of a text, “Congrats Pats, great game. I think I’ll throw up now.”
After the game, Bradley was overwhelmed with emotion. He called it simply, “One of the greatest days of my life.”
Bradley, a Patriots fanatic, was at the center of endless woofing. “I’m taking all comers,” he said.
It was indeed a transcendent Super Bowl, but Sunday wasn’t only about football, because the golfers had the good sense to present a thrilling final round, featuring a dogfight between Bubba Watson, Martin Laird and tantalizing young talents Brooks Koepka, 24, and Hideki Matsuyama, 22, with wily veteran Ryan Palmer serving as the people’s choice after the good cheer he displayed all week on the 16th hole. (More on that later.) In the end the titanium-denting Koepka prevailed with a stout 66 that was keyed by an eagle on the par-5 15th hole, where from off the green he holed a 51-foot putt with some six feet of break. A Florida native, Koepka was forced to hone his craft on the European tour when he couldn’t earn playing status at home. Being an innocent abroad turned him into a seasoned competitor, and in less than three seasons as a pro he has won in Italy, Scotland, Spain (twice) and Turkey. At 19th in the World Ranking, the new Phoenix Open champ will now get to consolidate his schedule on the PGA Tour, where he can work toward his ultimate goal: “I want to be the best player in the world.”
Koepka appears to have the game and mental toughness to make a run at it. It was telling that after the adrenaline rush of his eagle he was composed enough to close out the win with three straight pars, beginning at the madhouse that is the 16th hole, where grown men dress like Sesame Street characters and women in short skirts wear footwear wildly inappropriate for a golf tournament. Despite edicts from the killjoys at Tour headquarters trying to tame the atmosphere, the players still had plenty of interaction with the fans, tossing them all manner of signed merchandise (and, in the case of Ken Duke, Kingmade Jerky). You’ve heard of making it rain? Palmer made it hail, attaching $10 bills to golf balls and tossing them to the adoring masses. He even offered a personalized message: “Have a beer on me!” Securing a prime seat to nab such loot inspired some die-hards to sneak onto the grounds in the middle of the night and sleep in the bleachers, which was giddily documented on social media. On Saturday morning, long before the first group came through, the crowd was so revved up that it chanted at the mowers. (“Cut that grass!”) A couple of hours later Francesco Molinari aced the hole, and the roar was so loud you could hear it half a mile away inside the Birds Nest, the 48,000-square-foot beer garden that is party central during tournament week. In tribute to Molinari, the bleacher crazies littered the area around the green with well-flung beer cans, which title sponsor Waste Management was happy to recycle, as the company does with all the other detritus generated throughout the week. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a couple of drunken bros argue over whether their burrito-smudged foil wrap should go in the compost, trash or recycle bin.)
The sudsy celebration of Molinari’s ace evoked memories of the bedlam touched off by Tiger Woods’s hole in one at 16 in 1997, the highlights of which were reshown endlessly in the run-up to his first appearance at the tournament since 2001. (Woods likes to play in a bubble of his own making, and all the “ruckus”—his word—at the Phoenix Open has never suited him.) For Woods it was only his second start since taking time off after the PGA Championship to rest his back, the other being a rocky performance at the World Challenge in December. There he had muffed and chunked and bladed and chili-dipped a series of chips, blaming rust and being caught between the techniques of his old and new swing adviser. He even went so far as to make an excuse about the grain in the grass growing around the greens at Isleworth, which was his home course for more than a decade. It all sounded a little fishy, but because of the extended layoff, we were inclined to give Woods a pass. At Phoenix he said he had spent the weeks after the World Challenge hitting “thousands” of practice chips, yet his execution in Scottsdale was atrocious from the start. The lack of confidence filtered into his long game, leading Tour pro Colt Knost to tweet, “I watched tiger hit balls for 30 mins yesterday on the range and he absolutely striped it! Something is going on in that head of his.”
Woods looked utterly lost during a Friday 82, his worst score in 1,267 rounds as a pro. The 11-over-par round was the worst posted for the week and left him tied for dead last among the 131 players who completed two rounds. Possibly the greatest short-game artist in golf history got up-and-down only twice out of the 10 times he missed a green, and some of his mistakes evoked audible gasps from the gallery. After his second round, Woods obfuscated with his usual patter about “patterns” and “bottoming out” the swing path of his wedge, but his woes have nothing to do with mechanics—it’s all between the ears, and everyone else seems to recognize it. In a flash survey of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers, 54% of respondents said they believed Woods has the dreaded chip-yips, and 30% went with maybe. Woods used to have the best head in the game, but it’s glaringly obvious now that, even with his body breaking down, the greatest challenges going forward will be metaphysical.
This week’s Farmers Insurance Open suddenly looms as strangely crucial for Woods. He’s tournament-sharp and will be playing on grasses he grew up with, at a course where he has always enjoyed a significant home field advantage. If Woods is blading chips around Torrey Pines, all bets are off. Even if he finds a Band-Aid, the hard fact is that he just dropped out of the top 50 in the World Ranking for the first time since November 2011, and last week Watson was talking about Tiger as if he is now merely a ceremonial golfer. “If you get to play with Mr. Woods, Tiger Woods, it’s an honor, it’s a privilege, and it’s a treat because you get to learn from him,” Watson said. “I don’t care what he shoots. You still learn from him. That would be like playing with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.”
Woods’s woes overshadowed the struggles of Mickelson, the man he one day will team up with when they’re ceremonial starters at the Masters. Mickelson also missed the cut, only the second time in their two decades on Tour that he and Woods earned a weekend off at the same event. But Phoenix is the only tournament in golf that is unaffected by the loss of such star power. It may not be quite as big as the Super Bowl, but last week the Phoenix Open was the perfect complement.