Hole 16 simply where the action is
In 1997, "raise the roof" was probably the most popular hand gesture in the world. At concerts, sporting events, nightclubs and bars, people celebrated by pumping their hands with palms up and elbows out. That winter at the Phoenix Open, the gesture even made its way into the staid world of golf.
It happened at the site of the only real party on the PGA Tour: the 162-yard, par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.
Tiger Woods was the tour's burgeoning rock star, but this was a few months before he would win the Masters in record fashion. He was in this amphitheater setting on a clear Saturday in January with 20,000 tipsy fans and another 120,000 scattered around the golf course. Some of the frat boys from Arizona State were polite enough to take a break from beer pong to let him hit his shot.
It was a 9-iron that landed in the cup for a hole-in-one.
That's when the crowd went crazy. Tiger couldn't contain himself, either. As he made his way from the tee box to the green, he pumped his fists and raised the roof. If Tiger had hit a poor shot, he could have been booed by the fans, a predicament not very different from what happens after a bad performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
"The 16th in the last 15 years has turned into an iconic symbol hole," said Alex Clark, the tournament chairman. "It's kind of like when you mention Sawgrass. Everybody thinks about the 17th hole. I think that's what we've sort of developed here with the 16th hole."
But a lot has changed at the tournament in the 15 years since Tiger's hole-in-one. Back then, there was just a handful of corporate tents. Now there are 155 skyboxes on that hole.
The drunken crowds have been also sobered by stricter rules on alcohol sales. It's still the rowdiest tournament in the game, but you're less likely now to see drunk frat boys screaming in a player's backswing or crazies like the gun-toting heckler who bullied Tiger at the '99 tournament.
"The 16th is such a big hole that now we have security," Clark said. "I think the fans realize that let's have fun, but let's not get unruly to the point where we're going to get ourselves kicked out.
"You still have that wild-card guy who might drink too much and say the wrong thing. The last thing you want is to have a player have a bad experience and not come back."
Yet the harmless, good-natured aspects of watching golf in the stadium seating around the 16th hole are very much intact. You can still place a wager with your friends on the threesome on the tee box. You can still drink a beer or two, but if you get too drunk you're going to get booted off the grounds.
The tournament employs liquor patrols to watch for the unruly drunks. "We do a lot of education with our vendors to not serve underage drinkers or people who have had enough," Clark said.
In its 77th year, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is one of the oldest running events on tour. Up until the past 15 years or so, all the top players had Phoenix on their schedule. Lately, there has been competition from events in the Middle East. Hunter Mahan, the 2010 champion, is at the Qatar Masters this week instead. The allure of the appearance fee money and the world rankings points was too great for him to turn down.
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"We are pleased with our field this year, but obviously we compete against tournaments on the European Tour and in the Middle East," Clark said. "They have a little different policy on their tour that lets you pay to play.
"So we lost a couple of players to the Qatar Masters this week. But overall, the depth of our field is fantastic. We have all the young guns from Dustin [Johnson] and Rickie [Fowler] to Bubba [Watson]. But we also have some of the grizzled veterans back like Phil Mickelson and Mark Calcavecchia."
Clark also has three of this season's four winners on the PGA Tour in his field: Johnson Wagner, Mark Wilson and Brandt Snedeker. Wilson is the defending champion. Last year, the 37-year-old Wisconsin native beat Jason Dufner on the second playoff hole for his second win of the year. The event was riddled with frost delays in 2011, but the forecast for this year promises perfect 72-degree days.
It's too early to tell if a dominant player will emerge this season, as many of the world's top players haven't started competing in the States. That time won't come until the Accenture Match Play in a few weeks. There we will get to see what the likes of Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Luke Donald and the rest of the name-brand guys do when they get together.
But for now, it's the time for proven but less pedigreed winners like Wagner, Wilson and Snedeker to lead the pack at the wild and rowdy 16th hole at TPC SCottsdale, where players can raise the roof with fans.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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