For the People

WM Phoenix Open Lives Up to Its Larger-Than-Life Billing

WM Phoenix Open Lives Up to Its Larger-Than-Life Billing

Photos by Rob Hernandez

It’s where Milwaukee’s time-honored Summerfest meets the ol’ Greater Milwaukee Open. It’s where Chicago’s famous Wrigley Field bleachers meet the ol’ Western Open. It’s where Ann Arbor’s mammoth “Big House” that is Michigan Stadium meets the ol’ Buick Open.

It is a golf tournament so immense that it has not one, but two nicknames – “The Greatest Show on Grass” and, in the hashtag-fueled world of social media, #ThePeoplesOpen. As golf bucket lists go, the Waste Management Phoenix Open deserves its place on yours, even alongside golf’s greatest stages like Pinehurst, Pebble Beach, St Andrews and Augusta National. But not because the TPC Scottsdale is some sort of holy grail after the last putt is holed, the grandstands come down, the trash hits the recycler and the beer stops flowing.

On the contrary, the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale sits at No. 29 on Golf Digest’s biennial ranking of Arizona courses. Golf- week magazine ranked it No. 4 on the state’s “Best Courses You Can Play” in its June 2022 ranking. And, for the discerning destination golfer, its hefty $389 greens fee during the high season around the tournament, can go a long way toward, say, the $595 (plus cart) that Pebble Beach is commanding this year.

A ticket to the WM Phoenix Open, on the other hand, might be one of the best deals in all of golf (admission tops out at $75 on Friday and Saturday). And if baseball fans can be drawn to the Valley of the Sun in huge numbers for exhibition games every March, then why not spend the first week of February in Scottsdale watching some of golf ’s best tee it up and have a good — dare I say unforgettable — time doing it?

Truth be told, I was skeptical when presented with the idea of the TPC Scottsdale be- ing a better destination option with a tournament ticket than a tee time. But I’d never been there for either until I made it my mission in February to see what the tournament fuss was all about and whether its other nickname – The Wasted Open – was remotely accurate.

This event has a reputation larger than nearby Camelback Mountain. In the “playing the odds” section of its spectator guide, it gives even odds to “one young female fan in a romper and 4-inch heels suffering a high- ankle sprain trying to navigate the pathways above the ninth green” and 3-1 odds to a “millennial bro sleeping soundly on a grassy mound outside the 16th hole after a busy day of ‘hydrating’ with adult beverages.”

That Sunday’s visit to the TPC Scottsdale got a little fuzzy at one point should speak to the intoxicating powers of tournament golf in these parts when it mixes with beer and sunshine — lots of sunshine (and maybe a few free drinks at the enticing Desert Oasis). Note, however, it took me five days to reach a state of mind it takes most tournament veterans less than five hours to achieve. Don’t believe me? Here’s my day-by-day tournament diary:

Tournament week begins, for me, somewhat by chance when I see fans wearing a variety of NFL jerseys moving as a large pack toward the 10th tee during the Annexus Pro-Am. And then I see who they are following – Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who at the time was free-agent eye candy to those trying to woo him to their team.

Aaron Rodgers is a crowd-pleaser wherever he goes.

“Come to Denver!” one fan screams, draw- ing a smile from Rodgers, while another bellows: “Pittsburgh!”
Rodgers, one of a dozen current and for- mer NFL and MLB players in the pro-am, poses for as many photos as a walk from one green to the next tee would allow. In between, he signs dozens of autographs and plays credible golf in the scramble event.

As he approached the fourth green midway through his back nine, Rodgers made the day of two elderly Packers fans who live in a retirement community near the course. He spent about five minutes chatting with Sandy Bing, 79, and Marlowe Sorensen, 84.

“He said to someone ‘I don’t need to putt; I gotta see my ladies,’” Bing said excitedly. “I was this close to him,” Sorensen said. “I could have scrubbed his little beard.”

Young. Old. It really doesn’t matter. The WM Phoenix Open brings out the crazy in everyone.

I am in full-on reporter mode when I arrive at TPC Scottsdale for Round 1 and head right to No. 16 to “investigate” the most famous par-3 hole in all of golf – aka “The Coliseum.”

There have been 11 holes-in-one on No. 16 since the Phoenix Open moved here from the more button-downed Phoenix Country Club in 1987 – none more famous than the one Tiger Woods made in 1997. I’d like to report that echoes of his shot can still be heard, but you can’t hear much over the din of the only hole on the PGA Tour fully enclosed by fans.

There is ample seating in the bleachers right of the green and I settle in behind fans from Wisconsin, about a half-dozen 30-somethings on a guys’ week in the desert. One has stumbled upon an abandoned headset a security guard seemingly left at the beer tent and he uses it to radio “his superiors” one minute and then lead the shenanigans the next.

We do everything fans who choose to take in the action at No. 16 are trained to do. We boo shots that miss the green or even those that roll off onto the fringe. We implore the standard bearer with each group to “SPIN THE SIGN!” and beg each golfer to “TIP YOUR CAP!”

I feel like a designated driver at the world’s largest frat party. Reportedly, 750,000 “servings” of beer would be sold at the 2022 event. I estimate half were consumed by fans on No. 16.

The Friday of WM Phoenix Open week ought to be declared a local holiday because, clearly, nobody’s at work. Even my wife, whose company had a small skybox overlooking the 17th hole, has taken the day off and come to see how hard I’ve been working the past two days.

We pack a lot into a short amount of time and match our thirst for getting steps in with our thirst for exploring the vast Stadium Course property and then we get lucky – we find the Desert Oasis in an area between Nos. 5, 6 and 7.

There, we are given a punch card that entitled us to up to 10 free samples of products from the likes of hard seltzer vendors Topo-Chico, Vizzy and Arnold Palmer Spiked and local craft brewers such as Saint Archer and Hop Valley. The buzz is building and it’s only Friday!

A real news hound would have set an early alarm and joined the thousands who arrived by 5 a.m. for the mad dash to the 16th hole once the gates opened at 7. However, another commitment keeps me from arriving until just after noon and, even though I feel like I was swimming upstream against fans filtering out like it was bar time, my tardy arrival gives me a unique perspective on the week’s signature moment.

As I enter the main gate, a deafening roar emerges from the heart of the course. As it turns out, golfer Sam Ryder has not only made a hole-in-one at No. 16 (the first tournament ace there since 2015), but has been showered with $10 cans of Miller Lite and Coors Light – not just their liquid contents, but dozens of the half-drank, 16.9-ounce aluminum cans – tossed onto the green by fans, resulting in a lengthy clean-up and 30-minute gap between groups.

A key point in my week comes as I leave. A fan is giving away a ticket for Sunday’s finale.

Just when I figure I’ve had my fill of #ThePeoplesOpen, I find a neighbor to join me for the final round and, together, we discover a whole ’nother side to golf ’s biggest party.

Call it a tactical mistake or tactical genius, but we head right to the Desert Oasis as it opens at 10 a.m. I explain the “sample” rules and, with little to no competition for our Arnold Palmer Spiked, we start there, make our way to other vendors and then watch a little golf (you may have figured out by now that very little golf is watched over the course of the weekend).

he tournament brings out all the stars, including Sahith Theegala.

You didn’t read it here, but the opportunity to rinse, wash and repeat that agenda might just exist for those who treat their servers well or happen upon a sample card with punches left. I’m not going to reveal how much we had to drink, but – by the time I led my friend over to the 16th hole to, y’know, catch our celebratory breath – let’s just say that we fit right in.

After spending five days sampling the most entertaining tournament on the PGA Tour, it would not be a stretch to say the WM Phoenix Open is the Super Bowl of spectator golf.

And, in 2023, the tournament will put that reputation to the test against THE Super Bowl. Football’s biggest night will commence across town at State Farm Stadium in Glendale a few hours after the final putt is holed and a champion crowned at the TPC of Scottsdale.

If You Go

When: Feb. 9-12, 2023.
Where: TPC Scottsdale, Scottsdale Arizona
Tickets: Admission is free for Monday and Tuesday practice rounds. Tickets are $50 for the Wednesday pro-am, Thursday’s opening round and Sunday’s final round. Tickets are $75 for the second and third round. (Fans 15 and under are free all week when accompanied by an adult.)
Getting to the golf course: Free parking is available at lots at Westworld, Salt River Fields and a lot at the intersection of Hayden and Mayo in Scottsdale. All three lots are located off the 101 Freeway.
Getting to Phoenix: In addition to numerous flights from major airports in the Midwest to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix (PHX), there are flight options from regional airports into nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (IWA).
Getting a seat on the 16th hole: There appeared to be more available public seating beneath the corporate suites adjacent to the fairway leading from the tee box to the fairway on the famous par 3 known as “The Coliseum.” Lines were longest to access the grandstands behind the green.
What to do when the golf is finished: The party doesn’t stop when the WM Phoenix Open is finished each day. There are nightly concerts Wednesday through Saturday at the Birds Nest near the main entrance to the TPC of Scottsdale. If you want to get away from the golf course, famous Old Town Scottsdale is located 20 minutes south of TPC Scottsdale. Golf fans from the Midwest will feel at home at Loco Patron, a popular gathering spot for Wisconsin Badgers fans. However, the Golftime Midwest staff is partial to the margaritas at Frank & Lupe’s Old Mexico.
What to wear: Golf fans run the fashion gamut at the WM Phoenix Open. From a weather standpoint, temperatures during the 2022 tournament were in the upper 70s or low 80s under a sunny sky most of the week. Lows were in the upper 40s or low 50s, but they can dip into the upper 30s that time of year.