News & Opinion

Phoenix shows PGA Tour how to play

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Tim Woods spent part of Tuesday morning at the Waste Management Phoenix Open driving Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo around the TPC Scottsdale grounds. Not a bad gig unless you’re, say, a Cardinals fan.

It may have been Rizzo’s first WMPO visit, and it was something like folks from Keokuk, Iowa, staring up in amazement at the New York City skyscrapers. There aren’t skyscrapers at TPC Scottsdale, but there are large, white-roofed structures everywhere you look – if you can see past the big ones near the clubhouse. The total number of golf-course structures is somewhere around 400. Plus, who goes to a golf tournament on a Tuesday? In Scottsdale, an army of fans, Rizzo discovered.

“Anthony was floored at how much is going on out here on a Tuesday,” Woods said. “Business is happening; fun is happening; golf is happening; a music festival is happening. It’s a combination of things this week that’s hard to duplicate. If you live in the state of Arizona, you’re coming out here sooner or later. People feel like they’re missing something if they’re not here. And they are.”

Rizzo was clued in by the right man. Woods is the assistant tournament chairman, which means he’ll have the top job next year. In the real world, Woods is a major and Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Arizona Air National Guard, having served two tours of duty in Iraq, and he sells insurance.

That raised an obvious question to me: So, Tim, do you favor term or whole life insurance?

Woods laughed. He does casualty and property insurance, not life, but that wasn’t why he laughed. “Yeah, nobody asks me about insurance once they hear about the Black Hawks,” he said. We then discussed what kind of filters it takes to keep all that desert sand out of the Black Hawk engines and rotors. The answer is, big ones that suck up gobs of power that the pilot – Woods – would like to have.

So, a still-active Black Hawk pilot is next in line to run a big-deal golf tournament? That’s just one of the many ways the WMPO is different from every other PGA Tour event.

Attendance here borders on the impossible: more than 700,000 for the week last year and usually more than 200,000 on Saturdays. “This week, we become the second-largest city in Arizona,” said Carlos Sugich, Big Chief of the Thunderbirds, the charitable organization behind the tournament.

The WMPO was voted Tournament of the Year on the PGA Tour in three of the past five years by other PGA Tour events. It is golf’s most wildly successful Tour stop, with emphasis on wildly.

The par-3 16th is the Loudest Hole in Golf, completely encircled by stands, and has a tradition of fans screaming insanely the split-second after a player makes contact with his tee shot (well, usually after but not always); fans serenading players with the correct school fight song or shouting silly trivia they’ve dug up on the player; caddie races (now banned); and players tossing goodies such as balls and hats into the stands to stay on the fans’ good side. Oh, and if you miss the green off the tee, it’s the only place in golf where you will get booed. Unless you’re Boo Weekley. Then it happens all the time.

Why don’t other tournaments copy the Phoenix Open model? Because it’s not so easy.

“I can tell you there isn’t a PGA Tour tournament that hasn’t been here and looked at every facet of this event to find some nuggets or something to take back, but there is only one Waste Management Phoenix Open,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who was on hand Tuesday to help announce Waste Management’s 10-year contract extension to take its tournament sponsorship to 2030. “There is nothing else like it. And not just in golf. I’d put it up against any sporting event.”

The Thunderbirds are one reason why the WMPO’s success can’t be emulated. “They’ve been a constant for 84 years,” said Jim Fish, Waste Management’s chief executive officer. “They’re really what makes this event what it is.”

The Thunderbirds and WMPO raised $12.2 million for charity last year. In the history of the tournament, the Phoenix Open has contributed $134 million to charity, with $68 million of that total having come in the nine years since Waste Management took over as sponsor.

The luxury suites and stands at TPC Scottsdale slowly have been built out. No other courses have the sprawling space that TPC Scottsdale does, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have parking within 10 miles for 200,000 fans.

“The course is built for fans, the way it has high banks around the edges,” Woods said. “There’s still real estate left, and I have plans for next year. We just keep getting bigger and better.”

In the early 1990s, most of the land around TPC Scottsdale was undeveloped. Organizers had plenty of surrounding desert on which to park cars. Fans could park and walk in. Most of that empty desert has been replaced by housing, hotels, car dealerships and business parks. But that doesn’t matter so much now because the tournament has cemented itself as The Place to Go.

“This is a big golf community,” said four-time Tour winner Charley Hoffman, who has a sponsorship deal with Waste Management. “It’s a great college town with Arizona State. The community embraces the tournament, and people from the U.S. and the whole world want to do business here. Other tournaments were bigger at one time, but it’s hard to keep up with Phoenix. It just gets better. You can’t copy that.”

Another key to WMPO’s “It Factor” has been entertainment. It may have been the first golf stop with a party area, affectionately known as the Birds Nest. It was a nightly party, complete with music and adult beverages, and became the hottest nightspot – and singles bar – in Scottsdale back when the city was still a little sleepy.

Golf during the day, party time in the evening. It draws two crowds. Tour player Kenny Perry used to tell the story about checking into a Scottsdale hotel and telling the female clerk that he was in town for the Phoenix Open. “Oh, I love the Phoenix Open,” she said. “I go there every night.”

Now, it has evolved into a more sophisticated, more mature music festival where, yes, men and women are still known to meet. Sometimes they’re PGA Tour players. Sometimes, they’re married PGA Tour players. Or so I hear.

This week’s music headliners include Snoop Dogg, The Chainsmokers and Jake Owen. I’ve got all of their albums and 8-track cartridges, by the way.

“The tournament’s got everything,” Hoffman said. “You want great music? You’ve got it. You want great golf? You’ve got that. You want to meet single people? You’ve got that, too.”

One other thing Phoenix has that others don’t is almost-guaranteed good weather. Let’s see the Memorial Tournament duplicate that in Dublin, Ohio.

Don’t forget, this event is played during Super Bowl week, a tough act to precede.

“No other sporting event wants to be up against Super Bowl week or can compete with it,” the Tour’s Monahan said. “This event does, and does it extremely well. It’s a showcase for golf. This really is the perfect jump-start for the year.”

The extension means that Phoenix will jump-start the golf season for 11 more years. So, Waste Management’s Fish has another full decade to get used to playing golf in front of Wednesday’s large pro-am crowds.

“My goal,” he said, “is to hit a good shot on 16 by 2030.”

As the Tour’s old slogan used to say, Anything’s possible.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle