Watching the 'Greatest Show on Grass' from three vistas at the Phoenix Open

Watching the ‘Greatest Show on Grass’ from three vistas at the Phoenix Open

Every year, fans at the par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale throw one of the biggest parties on the PGA Tour.
Fred Vuich/SI

Cynics snicker that yearly attendance figures at the Phoenix Open might be a tad inflated. My response is: Does it matter? Has anyone ever been to a golf tournament with galleries that even come close to the masses that assemble in Scottsdale? You can’t help but be amazed.

Admittedly, not everybody’s here for the golf. I love the story defending champion Kenny Perry told at this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open Tee-Off Luncheon. Perry went for a haircut last year during the week. He told his barber that he was in town for the tournament and she responded, “Oh, we love the Phoenix Open. We go every night!”

I attended my 21st Phoenix Open this week, the 14th at the TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, and if anything, I’m more in awe than ever. Given the drab economy and an iffy weather forecast, I half-expected a subdued affair, but there’s nothing like a party to lift the spirits. It’s a lot like Christmas morning in Whoville after the Grinch swiped their presents — the Whos didn’t care a whit. Soggy economy, threat of rain, no Tiger since 2001 — it doesn’t bother the fans in Phoenix. They come — and come in droves.

It’s always fun to follow the pros on a course you’ve played many times, so I usually follow a group I like for awhile. However, I took a new approach this year. I spent three afternoons watching golf from three different vantage points. They all had their rewards, but the last one was best.

Thursday: The Fairmont Scottsdale, Hole 4

What a blast! My dad and I are perched on a second-story hotel room balcony at the host Fairmont Scottsdale, with the GiaQuinta family of Chicago. I met them last summer and found out that they reserve a place here every year during tournament week. What a way to see the event. The balcony overlooks the short par-3 4th hole, where birdies and near-aces move the excitement needle.

You’re a bit removed from the crowds, but with six or eight pals, room service convenience, a scoreboard next to the green and a big-screen TV inside to keep track of the other holes, it’s like being home and being at the tournament at the same time.

Highlight: Local favorite Phil Mickelson stuffed it to 7 feet, drawing a huge roar, but missed his birdie. Playing partner Ian Poulter bunkered his approach, then hit the stick on his explosion. He may dress funny, but after the Match Play, he’s hotter than a July afternoon in downtown Phoenix.

Friday: Clubhouse Badge, Hole 18

My wife and I snagged passes for clubhouse access, which not only nets us free ravioli at the mini-buffet, but up-front, elevated seats behind the 18th green. What a superb, if ultimately odd, environment.

The viewing was outstanding, especially if you’re into watching folks swaying and stumbling — the main exit from the tournament is right in front of you. (If you’re part of the PC police, don’t scold me — there are cops and security guards everywhere and the taxi fleet is impressive.) We witnessed a variety of approaches into the 18th green, but none better than by the vodka drinkers next to us, who tossed crumpled up dollar bills at the women who impressed them walking by. Eventually, these entrepreneurs paid two boys down below to toss the bills — but these were wise lads. After the bills predictably missed their mark, the boys gathered them up themselves and scrammed.

With waiter service, you never had to leave your seat for a refill. That was nice. The vibe was party central, and the golf went unnoticed. That was weird. Nobody near me seemed to have any real interest in approach shots or putts. The golf itself functioned like the low-volume background music at a neighborhood bash. That’s OK. I saw plenty of action.

Highlight: The surgically-enhanced blonde nearby who uttered, “Oh my God, look at that. That guy has the word ‘gay’ on his back.” A sympathetic golf fan informed her that “the guy” was Brian Gay’s caddie.

Saturday: Phoenix Suns Lounge, Hole 16

This was the big enchilada — free booze and skybox seats at the rowdiest hole in golf. I hadn’t feasted on the fiesta that is the 16th hole since they completely enclosed it. It is truly arena-like. The media coverage about the 16th has almost reached saturation, but I’m a veteran here — at least 10 tournament trips to the 16th. I remember when the grass hill behind the 16th green was the best seat in the house, as you could swivel and see action on the 10th, too. Of course, Saturday at the 16th is the real deal. The truth? It didn’t disappoint.

A few former Phoenix Suns milled about, including current broadcasters Tom Chambers and Scott Williams, but the main attraction was all I needed. I wouldn’t call the crowd cuckoo, and I was a little surprised by that. Maybe the clouds and slightly earlier starting time held back the overserved maniac faction, but for the most part, the crowd behaved. It was loud, but cool.

Despite moving the tee up 40 yards, a tricky pin placement and unseasonable gusts tamped down whatever raucous cheers there might have been for close shots. Few players came within 10 feet. Nonetheless, there were moments. What kept the tee box bleachers gallery entertained was turning to look up at the sky boxes, singling out a patron who had a beverage in hand, and taunting him (or her) to chug it all. “Slam your drink! Slam your drink!” A drained glass elicited cheers; any remainder earned a chorus of boos.

Unlike the action at 18 the day before, the golf took center stage at 16. The rowdies with the Vikings jerseys honestly know their stuff. The players all know that they better produce, or else, even if they’re local favorites — or even if they’re leading the tournament. He who hesitates is lost. Back away from your tee shot to think about things and you’ll hear it.

Some players attempt to placate the hordes by giving gifts. Brian Gay tossed headcovers into the crowd. Y.E. Yang lobbed a golf glove. It didn’t quite reach the crazies — so they booed — and he smiled. Many tossed golf balls. Brandt Snedeker and Matt Every tossed them at the same time.

Rich Beem stuck it close, and boogied on the tee, punctuating his hip-shaking with two slaps to his buttcheeks. Ian Poulter, dressed as a blueberry cobbler, planted a short-iron close to the cup, then cupped his hand to his ear to listen for the reaction. It’s Poulter’s first trip to Phoenix, but he seems a perfect match for this event. I’m handed an oversized yellow foam No. 1 finger from the fine people at Oakley, who claim they’re “putting the FU back in FUN.” Soon thousands are pointing.

As the leaders approach, I hone in on the world’s most superfluous signs, the ones clipped to the fences on the 16th tee that say “Quiet Please.” Are you kidding me? Hey, I’m as much of a golf purist as anybody, but it’s now really obvious to me that this is how you grow the game — you portray it as pure fun.

Mark Wilson’s dad sits down next to us. What does Mark think of this hole, we ask him. “He says that you’ve just got to embrace it,” says Mr. Wilson. “Mark tells me that the key to the hole is to expect the unexpected.” Wilson throws a dart to close range and basks in the noisy embrace. A proud father watches him knock down the birdie putt.

Wilson, Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim leave the green to more thunderous applause — and that’s it, show’s over for now.