My day at 16
It’s the loudest hole in golf – and a good time was had by all
February 07, 2017
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
It’s the loudest hole in golf – and a good time was had by all
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The sun was still hours away, and the diehards were lining up at the gate. Party buses arrived in the pitch black and the revelers began to limber up for their annual Saturday sprint at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
If you want a prime spot on the 16th hole ... you better be ready to run.
There is no place quite like the 16th at TPC Scottsdale during tournament week. What appears as a straight forward, relatively benign 170-yard par-3, becomes an animal of a hole – because it gets engulfed by 16,000 stadium seats filled with fans with very high standards. If you miss the green, you will be booed. If you miss a putt, you will be booed. But if you provide a highlight moment, you will be cheered as loud as any NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB player has ever experienced.
A big percentage of the seats on the hole are premium tickets – you pay for the privilege of not having to be up before the crack of dawn. But around the green, the majority of the seats – approximately 3,700 of them -- are general admission. And for those, it is first come, first served.
During the just-completed event last week, 204,906 fans came through the gates on Saturday -- notoriously the biggest day of the tournament that is always played on the Super Bowl weekend. It was a single-day record crowd for the tournament – and many of those fans wanted a coveted spot at 16.
This is why you get the annual Saturday sprint.
For me, it is also a new experience. I grew up in Australia and have been a sportswriter for 17 years, enjoying some of the biggest sporting events around the globe. I’ve covered the PGA TOUR for the last six years but never made the trip to Phoenix until now. In golf, I’ve seen the patrons at Augusta walk briskly, but never run, to get their spots at the Masters. I’ve seen fans at TPC Sawgrass break into a bit of a jog to get a prime spot around the island green at 17 for THE PLAYERS Championship. But here in Phoenix, it’s run hard, or be left behind.
So like many others, I ran. But I quickly learned to be careful out there. One young woman unfortunately goes down heavily as she was attempting to Snapchat the mayhem.
Kent Reese is one of the sprinters. He admits his track running days are over, but today his jeans might as well be wind-resistant Olympic level threads such is his near-impeccable form. He has been chosen by his peers to lead the way and it proves an inspired choice as he bounds his way all the way to the 16th hole grandstands. A mini-panic ensues when he arrives, grabs a front row section but realizes holding nearly 25 seats or so for his group will be tough alone. He lies across as many seats as he can as other friends join him, doing the same. This is cutthroat stuff.
The costumes are becoming apparent. We have the Sesame Street gang with Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo and Oscar. We have the Jamaican Bobsled Team all joined together as one. We have Toucan Sam, Where’s Wally, Beetlejuice, Happy Gilmore … the last one makes perfect sense to me. I feel like I am in a real-life version of the brilliant Adam Sandler golf movie.
Alas, no sign of Chubbs.
A little further down, some very patriotic fans have found their spot. They’re unmissable in their American flag suits and attire.
Coming to the 16th on Saturday has become a tradition for this gaggle of guys who began the process years ago during college. While the group is predominantly men, there are quite a few ladies also dressed in resplendent red, white and blue.
“It’s our adult staycation every year,” local Stephanie Faken explains.
Stephanie has married into this group and couldn’t be happier.
“The kids are with grandma for the whole weekend. And tomorrow we all recover and then watch the Super Bowl,” she beams.
“The boys have taken this seriously for a long time. And it is serious business. We had 22 on the party bus this year, seven couples and seven extra guys and the theme is not optional. People have been stopped from boarding the bus in previous years for not wearing the right thing.”
As Stephanie recounts her stories, Angela Cox chimes in from behind. Cox is not in uniform, as she is not officially part of the group. But she feels right at home.
“We see them every year,” Angela says. “Stephanie is my Phoenix Open friend. It’s so cool to return each year and see some of the same faces. For today, we are like family.”
For others it is a family affair.
Tyler Fusco is now 25 years old and he’s been coming to the 16th for 10 years, from before the time when the stands were built up so big. His parents started the tradition and now, even though his elders spend their time in the more affluent skybox area, Tyler and his girlfriend Brooke remain with a large group of friends in general admission.
“I feel like the hole has grown with us,” Tyler says as he recounts his memories. “This place has been a significant part of my life. Every year there are new memories and every year is just awesome.”
Fusco makes a good point. How did it get like this? It has almost been a natural evolution. When Tiger Woods aced the hole in 1997, the roar was deafening. But the thousands on that day were mostly out in the open spaces. The stands were just down the right side. Each year, it appeared to get more and more stadium-like until 2009 when it finally became fully enclosed.
Brooke has been on the scene the last three years and Tyler admits to being nervous when he first introduced her into the fold.
“I wasn’t nervous for her even though she wasn’t really a golf fan. I knew she would love it. I was more nervous about how she would see me getting so into it and think I was crazy,” he laughs.
“I’ve loved it from the start!” Brooke confirms.
On the other side of the hole stands 22-year-old Kristin Henno from Newport Beach, California. You can’t miss her as she’s holding up a massive cut out of Andrew “Beef” Johnston’s head eating a hamburger. She’s already chanting “Beef, Beef, Beef,” although he’s not due to come through for a while yet.
Kristin hoped to be wielding several other player signs, only to be denied at the gates. She’s upset that she had to leave behind Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. She also had Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson sorted, although the eyes had been crossed out to represent missing the cut.
When asked why Beef was the one cutout she kept, she jokes it’s because she wants a date with the Englishman. In reality, she knows he’s possibly the most likely to interact with the crowd. On the left side of 16, the fans are low to the ground and the players can pass out gifts in appreciation. Beef is one of those guys and later in the day when he does come through, he hands out headcovers from his sponsor Arby’s. Henno is devo – that’s Australian for devastated -- when he tries to get one to her but misses the mark in the chaos. I find out later she’s happy when Beef comments favorably on her Instagram post. Fan for life.
We are still an hour or so away from any groups coming through to play the hole and the crowd is getting a little restless. One man senses his opportunity and begins to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Of course the crowd joins as one and the national anthem booms around the place, bringing more cheers.
With the stands full, I head down inside the ropes and check out the tunnel where the players will enter. So anxious is the crowd that when I return through the tunnel with another media member, a chant goes up. They’ve mistaken me for someone important. I get lost in the moment and raise my hands to get them louder… it works. For 10 seconds or so I feel the rush like the players are about to receive. It’s insane.
Finally at 10:22 a.m. local time, the first group of Charley Hoffman, Ben Crane and Cameron Smith arrive into the cauldron. The cheers are deafening and the trio are all smiles.
Hoffman has the honor for the first shot of the day and tries to get settled over the ball. But off to his left, a large group of fans in Minnesota Vikings jerseys have stood at attention and once again begun to sing the national anthem. This is their tradition, reserved for the first group of the day. This is the infamous group who bring in “Leonard’s List” every year. A dossier on every player providing small obscure facts they can chant to get the players’ attention. Perhaps it’s a wife’s name, or a hobby the player likes. For instance, did you know James Hahn cuts his own hair? Mike Leonard has been running the list for 17 years and even gets his own special accreditation these days.
Hoffman realizes what they are doing and immediately stands to attention, faces the group, removes his hat and puts his hand over his heart. The gesture brings more wild applause and it seems the California native is now a favorite son. Until he finally hits his shot and it comes up short of the green … boos ring out so loud some of the seating shakes. If you don’t hit the green, they’ll make sure you know. Smith hits a cracking shot to close range to get the cheers going once more but when he fails to make the birdie putt once again, they are relentless. Welcome to 16.
At 10:45 a.m., Chad Collins makes the first birdie and the stands are singing. But when former Arizona State player Jon Rahm – fresh off his win the previous week at Torrey Pines -- enters soon after in his “Rhambo” jersey, it is really rocking. Yet Rahm gestures for more noise. Future USA Ryder Cup teams better watch out as the Spaniard embraces the noise and hits it right over the pin. He then buries the birdie, the crowd going nuts. I’m dodging spilled drinks as the high five count around the seats goes to stratospheric levels.
Many of the players are really quite generous to the fans and it certainly helps the atmosphere. Irishman Shane Lowry hands out signed cans of Guinness. Wesley Bryan throws shoes – yep, shoes. Golf balls are popular on the way out.
It’s time for me to grab a microphone and have a GoPro camera strapped to my head and get further embedded amongst the revelers. By now people have been sitting in the beating sun for several hours and the sight of a camera and microphone has them buzzing.
I can’t keep a straight face as fans attempt to commentate shots and tell me how they think they would do trying to play under the same conditions. We get all sorts of fun answers to what walk-up music people would like to hear if they were entering the stadium. “My House” by Flo Rida is popular. So is “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. My accent has become a source of both admiration and ridicule. Some think it’s British, others bust out the tried and true “shrimp on the barbie” line. Everything is in good fun and now invitations to parties and nights out are forthcoming. Apparently the after-party for most is in Old Town Scottsdale. (Later that night, Old Town resembles some of the busiest night spots I’ve ever encountered.)
In the crazinesss, I’ve forgotten to eat lunch. I don’t think I’m the only one. I desperately search for water, eventually raiding the tee box players cooler to get just a little hydration. I chat with a few elderly volunteers. They tell me there is 272 years of experience working the 16th amongst their fellow marshals on site today.
“Things have certainly changed over the years,” one smiles. “But we try to do a good job of controlling the mayhem. And I think for the most part we do.”
Not long after, the favorite son appears. The one they’ve all been waiting for. Phil Mickelson. There is a meek “Quiet Please” over the loud speaker. But good luck with that. From the moment he appears to the moment he walks out, the noise meter is bursting. But even Phil is not exempt from boos. And he gets his today when he can’t get a 31-foot birdie try to drop.
But Phil, like most of the players, embrace the way things go down at 16.
“Over 25 years, it's undergone a pretty good change. It's exciting where it is now, because there is a feel there that you just can't get anywhere else,” Mickelson says. “The crowd and the people here are second to none.”
As he exited the 16th green, so do some of the fans. And this allows others who have been waiting in line – some longer than three hours -- the chance to get a peak of the action. Three guys cannot believe they’ve made it. They’re dancing up the stairs, find a seat and soak it in.
“Whooooo! We’ve earned this,” one screams as he surveys his spot.
“We’ve been in line for nearly four hours just to say we’ve been here. Bucket list item checked off!”
It dawns on me that this is indeed a bucket list moment. And if you're a golf fan, or even a sports fan in general, coming out here should be added to your list.
By 3 p.m, my energy, and that of many others, is waning. But the crowd as a collective continues to lift those who are starting to wilt. Then defending champion, and eventual winner, Hideki Matsuyamacomes through late in the day. He’s making a charge and the fans know it. When he nearly aces the 16th, it’s just the spark the group needs to get a second wind and send them off into various parties across the evening.
By 3:17 p.m., Brendan Steele’s par putt signifies the last bit of play at 16 and the masses start to file out. They find refuge on nearby hills, creating a music festival-like atmosphere (sans music). As I make my way back toward the media center, I overhear this exchange.
“That was the greatest golf tournament I’ve ever seen,” one guys says.
To which the reply comes, “It’s the ONLY tournament you’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, but how could it get any better?”
It’s certainly a solid argument.