The WM Phoenix Open has always been a party-like affair, but Woods' theatrics in 1997 showed the potential of how much fun could be had at the shortish par-3 hole known as The Colosseum
SCOTTDALE, Arizona — Here is The Official Bucket List of Golf Spectating:
1, The Masters — any day, any hole, any round. Even a Tuesday.
2, The 16th at the WM Phoenix Open, The Loudest Hole in Golf, a guilty-pleasure mix of roars, hijinks and what former CBS analyst Gary McCord called "The Thunderdome."
3, The almost-island green 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass during the Players Championship.
4, Everything else.
If the Masters is the Holy Grail, TPC Scottsdale’s 16th is the Holy Hell. There is no golf experience like it. Players have compared it to Mardi Gras, a home game at Lambeau Field, Fenway Park or the Rose Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, a bullfight or some crazed combo platter of them all.
The hole is known as The Colosseum, because it is nearly encircled by skyboxes and suites that help pack in 20,000 fans. It’s up to you to decide whether PGA Tour players are the gladiators or the lions. Good shots get loudly cheered, not-so-good shots get soundly booed. The latter is unique in the staid, buttoned-up sport of golf.
"I think it’s the most iconic hole in golf and that’s a big statement," says Pat Williams, who was elected tournament chairman — or Big Chief — by fellow members of the Thunderbirds, the charity-driven group that hosts the event. "It’s a short par 3 with not a lot to it. The truth is, Tiger Woods made a hole-in-one there in 1997 and everybody saw it. Tiger’s ace changed our tournament. Anyone who saw that on TV, the 16th is where they want to go when they come here. We’ve got 20,000 fans watching a golf shot that even a tour pro will tell you is intimidating even though it’s only 150 yards."
The gallery’s wild celebration is what makes the video of that ace unforgettable. Beer cans, cups, programs — anything that could be thrown rained down on the tee box like confetti at a Super Bowl. The next year was the start of the build-out of corporate suites around the hole, the start of the Colosseum-like setting.
Last year on the 25th anniversary of that shot, Sam Ryder aced the 16th and fans around the green, seated in stands above the green, treated the ace like a hockey player making a hat trick. But instead of tossing hats, they tossed their drinks and other items, a crazy mayhem that took the grounds crew 15 minutes to clean up.
"That’s arguably the second-most famous shot now at this tournament," Williams says. "We dodged a bullet with Sam, nobody got hurt. This year, we switched to commemorative plastic cups instead of aluminum bottles around the green. I was a college sophomore when Tiger made his ace. I was on the property, just not at 16, but I heard the roars."
There is plenty of sideshow action at 16, most of it fun. Over the years, the 16th has seen caddie races — caddies lugging heavy staff bags chugging as fast as they can to the front of the green in a 150-yard sprint, spurred on by cheering fans who often had wagers riding on the outcome. Those have long since been banned.
Saturday is the most heavily attended day, drawing more than 200,000 fans according to tournament estimates. When the gates open early in the morning, a stampede ensues to score a spot in the open-seating portions of the grandstands at 16. Fans often dress up in costumes. One year, the race to 16 featured a handful of fans dressed as bananas running toward 16, closely followed by one in a gorilla suit.
Several groups of fans coordinate their activities. They do research on players, find out wives’ names, hometowns, anything they can find to get a player’s attention. And, of course, the fans beg for souvenirs. Some players produce a box of hats or visors to throw into the crowd. One year, Padraig Harrington punted some official NFL footballs into the stands. Many players donned Kobe Bryant jerseys for the shot at 16 to commemorate Bryant’s passing. The Super Bowl will be played in Phoenix on Sunday, so expect plenty of players to show up in Eagles and Chiefs jerseys in the third round.
John Hahn, a tour player born in South Korea, holed a nice birdie putt at 16 in 2013 and went into a Gangnam-style dance from a pop song of that era, a video that is still easily found.
The list goes on, maybe nothing stranger than a robotic golf-swing machine dubbed LDRIC (Tiger Woods’ given first name is Eldrick) that hit a shot at 16 and made a hole-in-one. Fact is often stranger than fiction at the 16th.
Just as the WM Phoenix Open has been way ahead of the curve in providing additional non-golf entertainment, it has been ahead of the curve on tournament infrastructure. In 1997 when Woods made that ace, Williams said there were maybe 20 suites along the left side of the 16th hole. This year, there are 297 around the hole.
Other tournaments can’t duplicate the Phoenix Open model because they don’t have room for even a small portion of that, nor can it handle such big crowds or find parking to handle big crowds if they could get them.
The WM Phoenix Open is the highest-attended golf event in the world, drawing more than 700,000 fans in 2018, the last year officials estimated the daily attendance before giving up. It was a big draw even in the Pre-Tiger Ace Era, but nothing like it is now.
The suites, sky boxes and support tents start going up in September, more than 1 million square feet of them. For eight months of the year, the structures are either being built up or taken down. The Thunderbirds are not going to create permanent buildings, in case you’re thinking that would require less effort.
"Even 10 years ago, that 16th hole Colosseum doesn’t look like it does today," says Williams, a successful real-estate businessman in greater Phoenix. "Had we built something permanent 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten what we have now. We need to continue to try to make it different and better to enhance the fan experience."
This year, two more video boards were erected and two new 5,000-square-foot patios with a view of the adjacent 15th green were added. The 16th is the tournament’s supermodel but the 17th and 18th holes have suites to accommodate 15,000 fans. There are 630 suites across the course.
The area around the 16th green gets a workout all week with five nights of music concerts. Maroon 5 performed on a stage there the Saturday night before tournament week. Wednesday through Saturday, the stage goes back up each night and is taken down by the next morning. Jason Aldean performed there Thursday night; Machine Gun Kelly did Friday night; and the Chainsmokers are in for Saturday.
Then there is the famous, or infamous, Birds Nest, a tented bar area with live music and a reputation as the hot singles nightclub — even for some married tour players traveling solo back in the days before everybody’s phone had a camera and they could be found out.
"It’s fun, it’s a party and most of all, we’re a golf tournament," Williams says. "To be named as the first PGA Tour elevated tournament was important to us."
The Birds Nest and the nightly party atmosphere pre-dated the Woods ace but the Phoenix Open wouldn’t be what it is now without that milestone moment.
"I’m not sure there’s a hole more valuable to a tournament than the 16th hole is to ours," Williams says. "I don’t know how to put a value on what it’s meant but it helped us enhance the other holes as a result."
Here’s a clue: TPC Scottsdale charges a $525 green fee in-season and a spot to play in the Wednesday Phoenix Open pro-am sells for $15,000 — and Williams said the pro-am had a waiting list of more than 100 entrants. One hundred times $15,000 is real money.
The proof of the 16th hole’s rising status can been seen on social media. TPC Scottsdale stays open until for public and member play until less than a week before the tournament. Golfers have taken to having a friend video their tee shot at 16, just in case.
"I think I saw four hole-in-one videos from 16 on social media in January," Williams says. "When you think of iconic holes in golf, the 16th is on everybody’s list."
The tournament has been a big-deal, must-attend event in Scottsdale for more than three decades. And the 16th has only added to the tournament’s appeal and recognition factor.