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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

For The People: How The Phoenix Open Became a Golf Phenomenon

  • Every year in the desert, the PGA Tour flaunts its beer-soaked, high-energy cultural staple.
  • This year, the Super Bowl is also being played in nearby Glendale.
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

On a Saturday in January 1997, a 21-year-old Tiger Woods stepped up to the 16th tee at TPC Scottsdale at his first Phoenix Open. He launched a perfect shot at the then-stadium-less desert hole, where his ball took a couple of hops before finding the bottom of the cup.

The crowd let out a deafening roar heard across the course and threw drinks on the grass as Woods raised the roof on his way to retrieve his prize.

Aces on the “Loudest Hole in Golf” have become the stuff of legend — and are part of the lore that has earned the tournament nicknames like the “The Greatest Show on Grass” and “The People’s Open.”

“The Waste Management Open is the best freaking week of the year,” golf broadcaster Amanda Renner says in Netflix’s upcoming golf docuseries “Full Swing.”

“It’s the biggest party on Tour.”

Fans come from all over the world to experience the one week of the PGA Tour season when they’re allowed to be as loud and rowdy as they want.

The tournament regularly generates the Tour’s largest crowds: 719,179 people entered the gates in 2018, the last year the tournament kept track.

This year, with America’s most sacred sporting event next door, the Tour has an even grander stage to flaunt its own beer-soaked, high-energy cultural staple.

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For a league often fighting its reputation as stuffy, elitist, and antiquated, the WM Phoenix Open is a breath of fresh air — one that shows the Tour can have fun and appeal to a younger base.

“It’s pretty much the biggest tournament we have on the PGA Tour, as far as fans,” two-time tournament champion Brooks Koepka said before last year’s edition. “It almost feels like a real sport.”

Phoenix Rising

Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic Pga Wm Phoenix Open Final Round

The tournament has become a stalwart of the PGA Tour’s regular season — and in October, it was named as one of four events on the calendar with an elevated $20 million purse.

Its rise to popularity began in 1937, when the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce commissioned a special events committee to aid in tourism revenue. That committee was called The Thunderbirds, based on the Chamber’s emblem “derived from American Indian symbols.”

The Thunderbirds’ efforts in the past and present have done the job — and then some.

  • A study conducted by Arizona State University found that the 2022 WMPO generated $453.7 million of total economic impact.
  • Of that, an estimated $165 million came from 126,477 out-of-state visitors.
  • The state of Arizona took in $9.3 million in tax revenue, while the city of Scottsdale took in $2.9 million.

“Every year, the WM Phoenix Open is a cornerstone of Scottsdale’s event season, showcasing golf — an important part of the city’s cultural DNA,” city communications director Kelly Corsette emailed FOS.

“Scottsdale is an international golf destination, and this tournament is a huge part of creating and continuing that legacy.”

The Loudest Hole

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Understanding the Phoenix Open phenomenon starts with its most famous hole.

“What has been created here — starting with the 16th hole many years ago — was entirely organic at its origin,” PGA Tour SVP of communications Joel Schuchmann told FOS via email. “That is what makes it so special and why millions around the world will be watching this week.”

The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale looked like most par 3s when Woods hit his iconic hole-in-one — though one with a rowdier gallery than most pros were used to.

But that moment back in 1997 would echo across decades and seal the 16th’s future reputation.

As the crowds grew larger and more unruly, TPC Scottsdale and tournament organizers started adding luxury boxes behind the tee box and along the desert stretch leading up to the green, increasing seating each year.

Then, ahead of the 2009 tournament, they added bleachers behind the green — making the structure fully enclosed and creating what is today known as The Coliseum. The stadium’s presence has only ratcheted up the intensity.

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Last year, Sam Ryder and Carlos Ortiz snagged the 10th and 11th aces on 16 in tournament history — and the first since 2015. Each sent the 20,000-seat gallery into a frenzy and beer cans flying from every direction onto the course.

This year, the Tour says that “a zero-tolerance policy is in place for throwing items onto the course, and all alcoholic beverages at the 16th hole will be served in plastic cups rather than cans.”

It’s Easy Being Green

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Those recyclable souvenir cups are coming from the tournament’s longtime title sponsor, WM.

“It’s a nice green cup with the 16th-hole logo,” WM’s director of corporate communications Janette Micelli tells FOS. “We’re hoping that people wanna keep those and take them home with them.”

Green is an obvious theme for a company that has been trying to shift public focus away from its traditional role as a waste collector and disposer — so much so that it rebranded from its original name, Waste Management, last February.

With the gallery becoming a sea of green for “Green Outs” at the tournament’s Saturday round, the color has become a lifestyle at TPC Scottsdale.

  • The tournament is going on its 11th year as a zero-waste event, which it accomplishes through recycling, composting, donation, reuse, or creating energy.
  • All vendors at the tournament are contractually obligated to abide by these standards.
  • WM touts that the tournament is the “world’s largest zero-waste sporting event.”

Previous sponsor, capital markets firm FBR, dropped out “within a couple of months” of the 2010 tournament, giving WM the opportunity to swoop in for the naming rights, per Micelli.

Since then, the company has created a synonymous culture around the event — so much so that people often refer to the tournament as the “Waste Management Open” instead of its real name.

A Crossover Episode

Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every year since 1973, the Phoenix Open has been played on the weekend of the Super Bowl, even following it as it moved around the calendar.

This year, the Big Game and the People’s Open will share the Phoenix area for the fourth time and Super Bowl Sunday itself for the third: In 1996, the first time it occurred, the golf tournament ended on Saturday to accommodate Super Bowl XXX played in Tempe.

The two events don’t steal each other’s thunder so much as complement each other.

“There is great synergy between the two given the Super Bowl and the WM Phoenix Open are both bucket-list events,” says Schuchmann. “Barring a playoff, the final putt should drop on Sunday roughly 30 minutes prior to kickoff, so fans at home or parties have a dream slate of sports to enjoy.”

This year’s festivities have seen significant crossover.

  • Justin Thomas served as the Tour’s media correspondent at Super Bowl Opening Night.
  • NFL legends Emmitt Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Jerome Bettis, and J.J. Watt all played in Wednesday’s pro-am.

However, the influx of people in town for both events creates huge demand for local hotels, restaurants, and rental cars, with traffic posing one of the biggest challenges of the weekend, Scottsdale parks and recreation manager Chris Walsh tells FOS.

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“In many ways, these are good problems to have and speaks volumes about the success and the growth of the WM Phoenix Open over the last 15-20 years,” Schuchmann says.

Another tolerable problem is that WMPO’s attendance drops significantly on its last day — in 2018, it went from 216,818 on Saturday to 64,273 on Sunday.

Keeping Cool

Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Even amid its current existential threat from LIV Golf, the PGA Tour sees the WM Phoenix Open as more than just a novelty — it’s also one of the most important non-majors.

The Players Championship is for the players, and the WM Phoenix Open is for the people.

The Saudi-backed upstart series has built part of its reputation on the back of its alcohol-infused galleries, wild stunts, and freedom of expression for players.

While LIV is betting on that model for entire seasons, the PGA Tour is content to have its flagship party event subtly shape its other operations.

“Not every tournament can have the size and scope of the WM Phoenix Open,” says Schuchmann. “Many tournaments have been positively influenced to ensure a premium fan experience above and beyond the competition.”

The innovations the Tour has announced since LIV came on the scene — among them, restructured/elevated player payouts, a virtual golf league, and the Netflix series — have helped make the Tour’s image “cooler.”

But perhaps nothing on Tour will ever be as cool as the golf tournament in Scottsdale.

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