News & Opinion

Legend of Phoenix’s ‘Colosseum’ grows

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale has a reputation to uphold. It is the biggest bad-ass in golf.

This is no Sweet 16 during the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open. This hole might be the only place in golf where a player can get booed. Miss the green with a short iron and get booed. Miss a putt and get booed. Fail to tip your cap after an entire grandstand section chants, “Tip your cap! Tip your cap!” as you walk to the green, and you get booed.

The 16th hole is a mercy-free zone. That’s one reason why it is so loved, dreaded and hated, all at the same time. It is definitely unsettling knowing that 20,000 or so fans encircling the hole in a stadium setting are going to shout as loudly as they can as soon as the club makes contact with the ball. The 16th tee is the closest golf gets to a football game.

If staid Masters Tournament officials were in charge here, those grandstands would be cleared of riffraff. Which would be everyone. There is no such thing as decorum at the 16th. Almost anything goes, mostly in the name of fun.

The media have nicknamed the 16th “The Colosseum,” after the famous first-century Roman structure. It hasn’t officially caught on until Jim Nantz or CBS says so.

As nicknames go, I like The Colosseum. If the golf shoe fits, wear it. The rowdy, roaring fans in this Colosseum are the lions. The players are the gladiators, if they hit a good shot or at least fling visors and T-shirts into the stands, or the Christians, if the noise flusters them and they get devoured by the lions.

Helpful tip to WMPO rookies: Bring plenty of trinkets to distribute. Keep the lions fed because these lions usually are hangry. That’s hungry and angry. Don’t worry about the lions being thirsty. These lions are exceptionally well-hydrated thanks to open bars in the luxury suites high above.

The Colosseum’s bad-ass image was cemented in 1997 when Tiger Woods made a hole-in-one there. That was before the 163-yard hole was encircled by giant stands. There was a small mound behind the tee then, and fans could crowd in close. When Woods holed out, bedlam erupted.

I was at the clubhouse, quite a distance away, interviewing Nick Price when this huge roar rolled across the desert. Price stopped in mid-sentence, blinked, and said, “That’s a hole-in-one at 16!” Then the roar didn’t let up. I mean, it didn’t quiet down at all. Five seconds later, Price added, “That’s Tiger!”

We hustled down the ramp to the media room, which is underneath the clubhouse, to catch the replay. It was Tiger, all right. Playing competitor Omar Uresti high-fived Woods while a chaotic barrage of beer cans and half-full beer cans flew through the air and landed on the tee box, as if someone had just broken open a piñata at a brewery. It looked like a war zone. That Tiger moment has remained as The Colosseum’s signature.

Despite its deserved reputation, however, The Colosseum has a soft side, too. Nice things sometimes happen at the 16th, like tiny flowers blooming in a barren desert.

Tour players Billy Mayfair and Jon Rahm, former collegiate stars at nearby Arizona State, donned ASU jerseys with No. 42 and the name Tillman on them to hit shots at 16. They were nice tributes to ASU alumnus Pat Tillman, a former Arizona Cardinals player who walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL contract to join the military shortly after the 9/11 attacks. He was killed in action in 2004 in Afghanistan while serving with the elite Army Rangers.

Local favorite Phil Mickelson once autographed footballs and lobbed them into the stands. Irishman Padraig Harrington delighted spectators by punting several footballs quite well for a non-American.

My favorite moment, until Tuesday, was when easygoing Australian Jarrod Lyle knocked in a hole-in-one eight years ago and, after he got over the initial surprise, smiled at the enormity of what he’d done. Lyle seemed so genuinely happy and pleased, a moment that he deserved.

He’d been diagnosed with leukemia as a teen, but he beat the disease. He was diagnosed with it again in 2012, a year after his Phoenix ace, and beat it again. The leukemia returned for a third time in 2017. Lyle fought the battle of his life, for his life, and lost. He died before the first round of last August’s PGA Championship. He was 36.

At the time of his ace, Lyle said the shot was something he’d remember forever. We didn’t know then that “forever” for him would mean only 7½ more years. His loss shook golf.

The Colosseum could use more of his unbridled love. So, during Saturday’s third round, Lyle will be memorialized at 16. A replica of his staff bag will rest on the tee, filled with a set of clubs that includes the ace-making 8-iron. A permanent plaque will be installed, honoring Lyle’s shot along with the eight other aces made during Phoenix Open play.

Lyle’s signature yellow bucket hat will hang on the bag, and several other players are expected to wear one, too, even if only for the tee shot at 16. I expect Lyle’s memory to do the impossible at some point Saturday at The Colosseum: cause a moment of silence. At the unruly 16th, that’s unheard of, quasi-pun intended.

The 16th is actually softer than you think. On Tuesday, Woods’ ace was replaced as the most memorable moment in Colosseum history. For this one, you need Kleenex.

Gary Woodland, the defending Phoenix Open champion, was playing a practice round with Matt Kuchar when they were joined on the 16th tee by Amy Bockerstette, a Special Olympics Arizona competitor (video). They surprised her by asking whether she wanted to hit a tee shot. She did, and her dad came prepared with Amy’s golf shoes, which he helped lace up, and her clubs.

When it was her turn to hit, Amy made a nice pass at the ball and sent it into the greenside bunker. Not bad. The crowd cheered her on and waved.

Amy acted like a seasoned tour pro, smiling widely and waving back. In fact, she couldn’t stop smiling. It was beautiful. She told Woodland in a surprised tone, “They love me!”

At the green, Woodland was going to retrieve her ball from the sand, but Amy intended to play out the hole.

“She said, ‘I got this,’ and she was right; she did,” Woodland said. “It was awesome to see. Her dad told her to swing harder out of the sand, and she kept telling him, ‘Leave me alone. I got this figured out.’ It was really cool. She was so sweet and so excited and happy.”

Her bunker shot stopped about 12 feet from the cup. Woodland helped her get a read on the putt. She wasted little time stroking it in, arguably the best par in Colosseum history.

“I’ve never rooted so hard for a putt to go in,” Woodland said. “And it went in, center-cut. I’ve been blessed to do a lot of cool things on the golf course, but that is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. She was phenomenal. I told her she was a hero.”

The Colosseum is a place for heroes. Woods. Mickelson. Lyle. Woodland. And now, add Bockerstette. They all share a trait with the 16th hole: They’re bad-ass.

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