My morning with the Breakfast Club at WM Phoenix Open
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Humans don’t enjoy being outside in the cold and rain. There are exceptions, one of which is the lead-in to a notable sporting event.
As a native of western New York, Buffalo Bills tailgates are the first thing that comes to mind – fans think nothing of arriving at 8 a.m. on a crisp December day in freezing temperatures, layering up and cracking a frosty beer with kickoff still hours away.
I thought back to Bills games as I arrived Saturday morning at the WM Phoenix Open, anxious to experience the event’s famed “Breakfast Club.” This year’s iteration came with a twist, as pre-dawn temperatures hovered around 40 F with a cold rain. This was weather for the heartiest of fans. They numbered well into the hundreds.
The Breakfast Club premise is straightforward: arrive early, get ahead in line to sprint to the best general admission seats at the par-3 16th hole, the biggest party in professional golf. I had first learned of the Breakfast Club from Jim Knous, a former TOUR pro who Monday qualified this week and made the cut. In 2017, after Knous first Monday qualified into the event, he told me how would join the run as a college golfer at the Colorado School of Mines; he and a dozen buddies would make the 13-hour drive to TPC Scottsdale and arrive early for the stampede to 16. It wasn’t as crazy back then, Knous told me. But that got me thinking: What’s it like now?
The legend has grown through the years, fueled by social media, with fans often posting scenes from witching hour as anticipation builds for the famed Opening of the Gates – think Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, but with moderately imbibed golf fans (and/or fans of culture) sprinting down a service road that remains straight for several hundred yards, then bends right for a few hundred more before leading to the Colosseum-like par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course.
The Breakfast Club battles the elements to kickoff Saturday at the WM Phoenix Open
I had heard of fans pulling all-nighters, proceeding directly from the previous night’s Birds Nest concert to attain a spot in line. I couldn’t confirm. I had heard of some wild attire that rivaled the rowdiest of Halloween parties. I confirmed.
For transparency, I took the easy way out. Early week, I speculated about the possibility of pulling an all-nighter to join the earliest arrivers, but I failed to do so; I arrived at 5:30 a.m., with less than two hours until the Opening of the Gates. I had visions of joining the run, but my gout-infused feet (although healthier in recent months) wouldn’t quite allow it. At any rate, it is something to strive for – returning to TPC Scottsdale and completing the run.
Someday I may scribe an account of stampeding alongside the Breakfast Club (the name derived from tournament staff providing 10,000 burritos and water to fans at the 16th hole at 9 a.m. Saturday). For now, here’s an account of my visit to the Breakfast Club in the pre-dawn hours Saturday, as hundreds of fans assembled with the intent of getting the best seats in the house.
I started at the front of the line, the morning rain providing a steady drumbeat on the gravelly road, and I found no shortage of color: five friends dressed as Super Mario from the long-running game franchise (complete with bright red caps), one of which was notably confident in his ability to outrun all contenders in the race to No. 16. (Super Mario is a reliable character as far as video games go, but I remained skeptical based on lack of familiarity. The group also expressed a desire to find Princess Peach.) The friends, who met at nearby Grand Canyon University, launched into a spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which quickly gained steam through the line that featured approximately 10-12 fans in each row, spanning an estimated 200 rows. The tension was palpable as spectators readied to springboard toward 16, still a half-hour or so from gate opening. The energy needed to go somewhere – for now, it went to song and verse.
Fans on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale at the WM Phoenix Open. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)
The front of the line also included a fan in a wheelchair, Philadelphia native Drew Kabo, who moved to Arizona for college in the early 2000s and has attended the WM since 2007. For the last seven years, he and some 15 friends have arrived at 3:30 a.m., without fail. “Once upon a time, it would’ve been an all-nighter,” he said, “but we were in bed by 10 last night.” Nothing will stop Kabo from attending this event, not even a ruptured Achilles tendon, which occurred during a game of pickup basketball last week. The first thought in his mind: what would happen on Saturday? It’s a long-running tradition among his friend group, who dress for the occasion – this year, hockey jerseys from the popular Mighty Ducks movies. Kabo couldn’t, wouldn’t miss this tradition. “Ducks fly together,” a friend pointed out. The group then began to quack in unison, the decibels rising with each quack.
“I made my appointment with the surgeon for (this coming) Monday,” Kabo added. “No place I’d rather be. This is it.”
As I navigated the line, I observed fans sharing strategies for the upcoming run, as any small edge could lead to a crucial advantage in viewing position.
Electrolytes are key. One beer, one water. Know your distance; a lot of people burn out early on the run. You see a lot of people halfway, gassed, you’ve got to pace yourself. It’s all about the pacing. Don’t get too worried if they get out ahead of you. Stick to your pace. Stick to your game, is what it’s about. Run your race. Don’t let anybody else influence you.
This is serious business, I realized.
As I moved toward the middle of the pack, I heard a “Go Bills” from within the crowd (I donned a Buffalo Bills hat, of course, for the occasion). I ambled toward the patron, Trey Osadchey, and it turned out he grew up in my hometown of Orchard Park, New York, a Buffalo suburb. (Turns out, the WM Phoenix Open is indeed the nerve center of the universe.) Osadchey and a friend were sporting America-themed shirts with eagles as the centerpiece. He was “kind of dragged” to the event by friends last year, not looking forward to the run, but found himself back once again.
“Once you do it, your blood starts flowing and your veins feel electric, and nothing’s better than that,” Osadchey said. “You get to 16, the first strike of the ball is like the best sound of thunder you’ve ever heard. You can’t even believe the atmosphere that goes on; nothing’s stopping you. Nothing’s stopping the players. What can you do? There’s nothing better than that – maybe the Daytona 500, but that’s probably it.
“A lot of Gatorade, a lot of water, and more beers than both of those,” he said of preparation for 16. “Prepping your mind; we went to sleep around 10:00 last night, woke up at 2 … When (my friend) first told me about it, I didn’t really believe what he was saying. I was like, ‘There’s no sporting event in the world that you have to get up there at 2 a.m. to get first in line.’ He’s like, ‘No, we will get there at 2 a.m. and there will be 100 people in front of us.’ I was like, ‘There’s no way.’”
Now he’s hooked.
“It’s probably the best sporting event I’ve ever been to,” Osadchey said.
After saying goodbye to my fellow western New Yorker, I moved further back and found three fans dressed as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – Andrew, Cody and Paul – complete with red uniforms and broad-brimmed hat.
Fans on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale at the WM Phoenix Open. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)
The trio, all from Toronto, came prepared with ponchos for good measure. They had been separated from their fellow Mounties, some ahead and some behind (there’s a 5 a.m. positioning run from the initial gate to the final gate). The Mounties aimed to earn good seats to gamely support fellow Canadian Nick Taylor – “he’ll be hearing us out there.” The trip began as a bachelor party with a couple of Mounties and an inmate. Photos were shared and the pilgrimage “spun out of control from there.”
In the final moments before the Opening of the Gates, the Mounties shared a veteran tip: Do the heavier drinking on Thursday night and keep it more tame on Friday. This allows for a spry Saturday morning.
“Hopefully all of the Mounties get to the same spot at the same time,” Cody said.
The gates opened at 7:16 a.m., and the Mounties dashed – along with the Marios and the eagles, some wizards, astronauts, Happy Gilmore and more. Some sprinted, others jogged, and others walked behind. A few minutes later, a second wave of runners emerged, having been kept behind the initial gate (a couple hundred yards behind) until the Opening of the Gates. By now the rain was at a steady drip; my shoes were water-logged and precipitation was dripping down my Buffalo Bills hat. I joined the stragglers in walking from the gates to No. 16; the scene reminded of the minutes shortly after a bar’s closing time, when the lights come on and customers steadily migrate toward the exit. That exit was the 16th hole, where the noise was starting to build to a fever pitch as the resumption of Round 2 was imminent. The buzz emanating from the stadium, though, suggested high levels of crowd energy, not unlike the fourth quarter of a Bills game.
The Stadium Course’s par-3 16th, I realized, is an elixir after all.
I made a lap around the stadium – general-admission seating was approaching capacity, with dozens still in line – before returning to the media center, where my colleague Casey Johnston broke some news: Super Mario had won the race to 16 after all. There was proof in the form of footage that showed him passing a Red Bull-sponsored runner for the lead down the service road’s closing stretch. A triumph of the human spirit, and a premier seat for the marathon day ahead – which would feature the end of Round 2 and most of Round 3. Play would continue until darkness, and the Breakfast Club would morph into the Supper Club.
As I type this, some nine hours after the Opening of the Gates, the morning chill’s lingering effects are still present in my fingers. (I ran into veteran caddie Geno Bonnalie between rounds, and he immediately gave me two hand warmers after a handshake. “Your hands are cold,” he said. They are indeed.)
For those who survived Saturday at 16, pre-dawn to dusk, I salute you.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.