News & Opinion

Decorum meets its match at Phoenix’s brazen 16th

No other hole on the PGA Tour is like the par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale, site of this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, and that’s no coincidence

The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale is where golf goes to lose itself, which makes it like the 19th hole except that it opens earlier in the day. When it comes to ranking the world’s finest par 3s, No. 16 probably wouldn’t make anyone’s top 500. It measures 163 nondescript yards from the tips. There’s no devilish creek fronting the green, no Pacific Ocean loitering behind it.

At the home of the PGA Tour stop named after a garbage company, there won’t be a ton of waste management going on at this week’s Phoenix Open. The smallest hole on the course will make the biggest noise, draw the largest crowds and exhibit the tiniest amount of decorum the game has ever seen. Untoward fan behavior is what made Phoenix famous, which is more of a sham than a shame.

There’s no place to hide for players at TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole, which puts the fans – 20,000 of them, seemingly all overserved – right on top of the action.

Anyone who thinks the scene at the 16th is good for the game is driving on the wrong side of the street. Courteous patron etiquette is one of the beautiful things about golf, a precious commodity that shouldn’t be deprioritized under any circumstances. I covered NFL games in Philadelphia where spectators were so verbally abusive that they probably could have been arrested. When Maryland visited Clemson for a late-season game that likely would decide the 1985 ACC football champion, the pile of confiscated alcoholic beverages at one stadium entrance easily could have filled a pickup truck.

Almost every bottle was empty. And then Clemson lost.

The throng that gathers at the 16th isn’t nearly as mean-spirited, if you’ll pardon the pun, but it’s rowdy and fairly uncontrollable. If your 9-year-old son expressed an interest in attending the tournament and you didn’t know any better, you might last 20 minutes in the grandstand before heading elsewhere. Six hours is a long time to be drinking beer in the sun. Suffice it to say, things don’t get any tidier as the day goes on.

But enough preaching. The 16th has given the event a unique identity, in no small part thanks to a pair of minor miracles. The first is that no fan-related incident has ever cost someone a chance to win the tournament. If something does happen, the Tour won’t wait until the following Monday to reassess the value of golf as a contact sport, so to speak.

“At some point in the early 2000s, there was general discussion as to whether the 16th was good for the game or not,” says a man who sat in on those meetings. “Believe me, there was a wide range of opinions, and to some degree, that dialogue became part of shaping leadership’s thinking as to what direction we’d go with the Players Championship. Do we make the [par-3 17th] like Phoenix or go toward Augusta?”

The island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass is the closest thing to the 16th at Scottsdale in terms of atmosphere, but there really is no comparison. One has a giant hill down the left side of the hole where attendees do more socializing than watching. The other accommodates 20,000 in a coliseum-like setting and features 275 skyboxes. Every seat is right on top of the action, making for a dynamic and very intense viewing experience.

Which takes us to the second highly improbable occurrence: no other tournament has attempted to replicate the concept of golf in a massive fishbowl. The biggest reason? Nobody generates attendance figures like Phoenix. Although some have questioned the veracity of those numbers over the years, there isn’t much argument as to which Tour stop reels in the most bodies. The 2018 gathering set single-day (216,818) and week-long (719,179) records that already had resided in Arizona for years.

The turnstiles may fudge the digits now and then, but they don’t tell outright lies. “Frankly, I don’t know why the Players didn’t try to become more like the Daytona 500 and less like the Masters,” the source added. “The setting [at the 16th] might be the most spectacular in professional golf, but would more stadium holes produce more stadium behavior?”

For now, and perhaps forever, it’s a mere hypothetical. When modern Tour pioneer Deane Beman launched the TPC series early into his tenure as commissioner, those courses were built ostensibly to host professional golf tournaments. Some purists considered the designs a bit gauche, and a few of them were panned entirely, but a significant element to Beman’s architectural strategy was to include lots of oversized mounding behind/alongside select tees and greens.

The idea was to give galleries a place to sit, which is why a few of those venues were branded as “stadium” courses. Sawgrass and Scottsdale were titled as such, but other TPCs – the one just outside Washington, D.C., comes to mind – failed to gain traction as Tour hosts. Most top players simply weren’t going to spend four days playing a layout they didn’t like.

TPC Scottsdale is one of the best ones, an underrated ballpark with some serious meat on the bone, at least back when it opened in 1986. Beman’s idea of open-air, amphitheater seating materialized to a certain extent, but then the stadium got run over by an arena. For better or worse, a big, bad and loud arena.

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