The PGA Tour's fifth-oldest tournament has evolved into most attended and raucous. Mooney discusses what has prompted the Arizona stop's popularity
Phoenix will host the NCAA's Final Four in April and the Valley of the Sun has hosted three Super Bowls since 2008, but nothing really compares to the estimated 700,000 golf-crazed fans who will spill onto the grounds of TPC Scottsdale for this week’s WM Phoenix Open.
Yes, the WM Phoenix Open is the fifth-oldest event on the PGA Tour, but organizers have led a progressive agenda over the last decade that defies golf’s reputation as a buttoned-up sport. Anyone who attends or watches TV coverage of the tournament would likely agree that the event’s nickname as "The Greatest Show on Grass" is well earned.
The First Call Golf interviewed 2024 WM Phoenix Open assistant tournament chairman Matt Mooney to discuss the tournament's success, why the 16the hole has become one of golf’s most recognizable holes, the addition of DraftKings gaming in 2024 and other subjects.
The First Call: Why do you think the WM Phoenix Open has risen in statue on the PGA Tour?
Matt Mooney: Yeah, it really has exploded the last decade with an economic impact study in 2022 showing that the tournament pumped $450 million into the local economy. It has become a bucket-list event for golf fans. There are a few things that stand out to me. First, is moving to TPC Scottsdale in 1987 and the stadium-like atmosphere. Compared to other tournaments you go to, we can accommodate the massive crowds because of the use of the course mounding as viewing areas. And then in 1997, Tiger Woods’ first full year as a pro, he made a hole-in-one on the 16th hole. We look back on it now and laugh because there was one row of bleachers and it was surrounded by Arizona State students drinking beer. But that image alone, of Tiger, catapulted the event to just another level. All of a sudden we realized, "Holy cow, we got something here we can run with.
TFC: You mentioned the 16th hole, which has been turned into a 20,000-seat amphitheatre of golf hysteria. Can you describe the atmosphere?
MM: Well, if you Google the "Phoenix Open 16th hole" there are just so many incredible videos of these moments that have occurred. And so now it kind of feeds on itself year-in and year-out. We’re biased, but we think it has become one of the most iconic holes in golf. And you look at the hole and it's just a little 9-iron or, for some of these guys, maybe sometimes a pitching wedge. But it's that atmosphere around it that just makes it so unique and so intimidating. And, it's fun for us to see the players really embrace it. Those guys love being in that arena and being athletes and making that shot.
TFC: Tell us something golf fans may not know about the 16th hole.
MM: The thing that blows my mind every year is we’ll go out there Saturday or Sunday morning before we open the gates while it's still dark and people have been lined up all night. They get there at two, three or four in the morning and then sprint about a half-mile to the 16th hole to get a seat and then will sit there for hours before they actually see a golf shot. It’s an amazing scene.
TFC: The WM Phoenix Open couldn’t happen without The Thunderbirds, the longtime sports charity arm of the area’s sports ventures. Can you talk about the organization’s importance to the event?
MM: I do feel like a lot of the secret sauce on what makes its involvement so successful in hosting the event is that each of the 55 active Thunderbirds has a specific job for two years and so you really try to make your mark. As you can imagine, it's all Type-A personalities, some pretty competitive guys, so that structure drives a lot of the innovation. When we're all together we're constantly tossing out new ideas and things that we should do or could do better. And everybody feels this positive peer pressure to continue to, you know, leave the seat better than they found it.
TFC: Talking about innovation, DraftKings will be on site for the first time at a PGA Tour event with an 11,000-square-foot facility for gaming, food and spirits. Can you discuss that topic?
MM: You’re clearly seeing just incredible growth in sports gaming, but it’s exciting for us to see a specific focus on golf at our venue. The new facility, which just opened a few months ago, is right at the entrance to the course as you're coming in. So everybody will walk by that on their way into the course. And, DraftKings has done a wonderful job programming items throughout the tournament week. It’s really a special transformation of our entrance and sets the tone for people even before they get in the gates on how wonderful a time they're going to have.
TFC: The tournament is also described as "The People’s Open." What does that mean to you?
MM: Somebody said to me last year, after their first time here, that they were just amazed how happy everybody is. It’s just this most jovial kind of festive atmosphere. I think it's somewhat the time of year where there are a lot of people who are flying in here from colder climates and wanting to enjoy the sun for a few days, and people are taking time off from work and hanging out with friends and hanging out with clients and watching the golf. It’s unlike some other sporting events where your team either wins or loses and you're maybe unhappy or happy depending on the outcome. You come to this to have a great time and see people and watch golf in beautiful weather and a beautiful setting. It’s really fun for us to just see the way that people are embracing us. And at a time when golf is going through a lot of change, we hope that we're an example of what golf can be and how much fun it can be for people.