By Tim J. Randall
Just another golf tournament?
Anyone who has ever hung out at the raucous No. 16 at the TPC Scottsdale during the Waste Management Phoenix Open, or hustled off the course in time to make the opening act at the Coors Light Birds Nest, knows better.
Those who’ve been there understand that there is more to the Phoenix Open than golf.
Just as compelling of a draw is the party atmosphere, although through the years the golf has been pretty good, too.
Whether it’s that electrifying Par 3 16th hole, where the pros are either cheered wildly or booed lustily, depending upon the whim of the record galleries, the energy and vibrancy is palpable throughout tournament week.
“We are very careful to balance the golf with the party fun,” said Phoenix Open chairman Andy Markham. “We have great fans and we make sure that everyone has a good time, and that a few attendees do not ruin it for everyone.”
Although the caddy races on 16 have gone the way of wood-shafted clubs – golf, after all, must maintain at least a modicum of decorum, and safety – there’s still plenty of fun to be had, far more, and by much larger crowds, than at the average, staid PGA tournament.
Markham anticipates that the 2017 tournament, dubbed the “The Greatest Show on Grass,” will draw record crowds of more than 600,000 to the Airpark golf course during its run of Monday, Jan. 30, to Monday, Feb. 6, despite a significant conflict.
“The final round of the tournament will again fall on Super Bowl Sunday,” Markham said. “That makes for a good, fun and festive week.”
It seems that there is no stopping the momentum of the Phoenix Open. The environment has become vibrant since Tiger Woods’ famous 16th-hole ace in 1997, as incredible noise and energy flowed down from the stands.
“In the last five years, we have expanded the 16th-hole skyboxes from 240 to 270,” Markham said. “I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you what the event will look like in the next five years. Our team gets creative, and when there is demand, we will figure out the supply.”
One such evolution could be addition of the adjacent Champions Course to the tournament to broaden the player field and enliven the Pro-Am.
“We are considering that in the future,” Markham said. “For now, though, we thought that would not be fair today for our patrons and sponsors.”
Each year the Thunderbirds, sponsors and partners outdo themselves to provide the world’s best golfers with the canvas to dazzle patrons, while also catering to guests who want that entire entertainment experience.
“This year, the Birds Nest over four days will have eight headliner acts,” Markham said. “For 2017, we will have six expanded skybox areas around the 15th and 16th holes and 350 new bleacher seats. We also will enlarge the 2016 Bay Club area.”
It is not just the fans who win at the annual event. In 2016, the Thunderbirds raised $9.3 million for charities, making the total amount of $111 million over the life of the tournament, according to its website.
“This is the people’s open,” Markham said. “We have great fans, a great tourney, great weather and a great time.
“We want patrons to have the opportunity to see the best players in the world. We are going to continue to see a great field this year.”
That field includes last year’s sixth-place finisher, Will Wilcox.
“I’ll remember that week for the rest of my life,” Wilcox said. “It’s not often that you get to play in front of a crowd that makes you feel like you’re a quarterback in the Super Bowl, or a pitcher in the World Series. You definitely get that feeling. That crowd is incredible and so into it.”
In its 31st year at TPC, the Phoenix Open dates to the 1930s.
“The event was started by the Thunderbirds, a local community organization, to promote the Valley of Sun through sports,” Markham said. “Through the years, it became a hit with celebrities, golf professionals and fans.”
The roster of past winners is a who’s who of golfing legends, including Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller. In the TPC era, greats such as Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Tom Lehman have prevailed. In recent years, the next generation of talent has hoisted the championship trophy, including last year’s victor, 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama.
Waste Management Phoenix Open
TPC Scottsdale, 17020 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale
Monday, Jan. 30, through Monday, Jan. 6
Daily admission is $40 Wednesday through Sunday.
Free public parking, with shuttle access to the tournament gates.
For more information: 480-585-4334, wmphoenixopen.com, coorslightbirdsnest.com