Booze, Boos & Bedlam: Inside the 16th Hole at the Phoenix Open

There was an outbreak of the Corona-virus on Saturday at TPC Scottsdale, though no experts from the Centers for Disease Control were needed to determine its origin. This is an annual epidemic — fueled by barley, hops and yeast — that transforms normally prudent citizens into drooling cretins and the normally staid PGA Tour into a rollicking party.

The festivities begin at 7 a.m. when the gates open to a stampede that rivals any Walmart on Black Friday. But instead of dashing for discounted flat screen televisions, this excited crowd sprints to grab a coveted spot at the 16th hole, and it’s the most thrilling competitive charge you’ll see on a golf course this side of a Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia.

Each year, Saturdays at the Waste Management Phoenix Open dawn with buoyant spirits. And each year it ends in a sorry mess of tipsy antics and failed bladder control.

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Viewed from afar, the Waste Management is the grisliest spectacle on the PGA Tour schedule, famed for its over-served spectators stumbling around like Icelandic ponies. The partying is a sight to behold, and based on the vaguely haunted looks in the eyes of elderly volunteers, one not easily forgotten.

No matter. It’s what everyone has signed up for.

Dante’s epic “Inferno” might have included ten circles of hell instead of nine, if only the 14th century Italian poet had experienced a Saturday at TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole. Just 163 yards from the tips and entirely encircled with stadium seating and corporate hospitality chalets, it is the Vatican for plastered patrons.

There are 3,700 general admission seats around the hole and the lines to grab one of them linger for hours. The reward for waiting is a day of full throttle entertainment, even between groups, who often appear to be little more than gatecrashers at a party. The stands are peopled with folk whose last words seem destined to one day be reported as, “Hey, watch this!”

Among the constant chorus of chants, one broke above the roar inviting the display of bosom. It came from a group of bros and was directed at one of their own, a portly lad who duly obliged, doffing his t-shirt and shaking his assets like a veteran burlesque dancer. One man killed time by guzzling beer from his shoe — at least I assume it was his shoe — while egged on by revelers.

Only when a group of players enters the tunnel to the coliseum and sticks a tee in the ground do marshals step up waving their “Quiet Please!” signs. They have the most pointless job in sport, other than a lifeguard keeping watch when Michael Phelps is swimming laps.

Boos rain down each time a player hits a mediocre shot, with particular derision greeting anyone fooled by the false front on the green (false fronts in the gallery are considerably more popular). A birdie leads to a roll of toilet paper being tossed merrily round the stadium, the absence of which was sure to be keenly felt later by a luckless Por-a-Let patron.

Outside the walls of the 16th hole, it was bedlam by comparison. Hundreds of fans mass in hopes of getting inside. A few amused themselves by hollering at a fellow spectator to jump from the uppermost level of the hospitality suites, a multi-story fall that would still not have rendered him the most incapacitated person in the immediate vicinity.

Through it all, none of the marshals seemed eager to draw the attention of spectators to the Fan Code of Conduct. Printed in the official tournament program, the Code is replete with more gut-busting expectations than a child’s list for Santa Claus. Take the first item: “Fans will enjoy the WM Phoenix Open free from disruptive behavior including, but not limited to, FOUL or ABUSIVE language, obscene gestures, fighting, throwing objects, attempting to disrupt play or distract tournament players from their professional game.”

The author of that pearl shouldn’t stray far from his fainting couch this week.

Breakfast had barely finished Saturday when one spectator was expressing his delight at the frequency of the “F—- you, Bubba!” cries.

Another edict in the Code began, “Fans consuming alcoholic beverages will do so in a responsible manner,” at which point blinding tears of laughter prevented me from reading on.

It’s easy to dismiss the Waste Management as a boorish pageant, a vomitorium of obnoxious behavior where the ability to hold one’s liquor is eerily proportional to the length of the cocktail dress. It’s easy because it’s true. But to come to TPC Scottsdale and complain about the party is like going to Ireland and moaning about the rain.

It’s what everyone signs up for.

There are positive hangovers from this event. The WMPO raised $14 million for local charity this year, boosting the total to more than $161 million from this event. This may be a party window dressed as a golf tournament, but it’s a lucrative and effective one.

A common refrain to excuse the excess is that this is just one week on an otherwise sedate PGA Tour schedule. That’s only partly true, since the kinds of loudmouth fans enabled and even celebrated at TPC Scottsdale are increasingly evident at other stops on Tour. The Corona virus is not easily contained to one week, one tournament, and the WMPO is its Typhoid Mary.

As the leaders made their way up the 18th hole to end the third round, the earliest revelers were waking up on the course to begin nursing their hangovers before the sun went down. Many a player has left a PGA Tour venue trying to piece together how things went so horribly wrong. At TPC Scottsdale, fans often leave with the same feeling.

As the dense crowd shuffled slowly toward the distant exit, one fan bemoaned the traffic flow system in place. “There’s all this green field they won’t let anyone walk on!” he slurred, shaking his head at the stupidity of it all. He was pointing at a fairway., February 1, 2020.

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