Did you ever wonder what would happen if all the people who yell
"Fore!" from passing cars gathered in one place and focused all
their noisy energy on one group of golfers? It would probably
resemble a typical beer-drenched afternoon at the Phoenix Open,
Arizona's contribution to cultural cross talk. Next week, as
predictably as monarch butterflies and Capistrano swallows,
hundreds of thousands of Arizonans will migrate from their
air-conditioned family rooms to the desert floor of north
Scottsdale to watch the likes of Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson
duel in the sun.
But Arizona golf fans are a tad more boisterous than butterflies
and swallows. "The Phoenix Open," a writer for the Phoenix New
Times once explained, "is half a million people spending a week
acting like they just hit the Schlitz tent at a monster truck
Call it a demographic anomaly, call it a mirage, but the Phoenix
Open has become the most attended golf event in the world. It can
outdraw the venerable British Open by as many as 100,000
spectators a day. It makes the Ryder Cup, which limits daily
ticket sales to as few as 40,000, look like a garden party. And
unlike most golf tournaments, which are played before galleries
trained at the Academy of Hush and the School of Smattered
Applause, the Phoenix Open traffics in uproar. At the par-3 16th
hole, where bleacher babes and grandstand goofs rub sunburns with
Sun City retirees, the flight of every shot is met with a roar.
Balls that land near the hole are cheered. Balls that miss the
green are booed.
"Golf here is less traditional," says Ed Gowan, executive
director of the Arizona Golf Association.
Tiger Woods would have to agree. In 1997, when he aced the 16th
during the third round, delirious fans hurled programs, visors
and beer cans over the ropes, leaving a landscape that resembled
a debris field. Four years later Woods was hunched over a putt on
the 9th green when an orange sailed past him. (A teenager, acting
on a dare, had hurled it blindly.) One year, police arrested a
man following Woods and found a gun in his backpack.
Fortunately security has been beefed up in recent years. Besides,
the vast majority of Phoenix Open fans aren't looking for
trouble. They go to the Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale to
mingle, to schmooze, to party. The biggest of the hospitality
tents is the Bird's Nest, a 44,000-square-foot tent with its own
food court and a stage big enough for national acts. From 1987
through 2000 the Nest operated not far from the 18th green, but
complaints of drunkenness and excessive noise forced a move to
the current site, more than a mile from the golf course. The Nest
still resembles a frat party at nearby Arizona State, only with
more than 8,000 guests.
The Sun Devils have contributed greatly to the tournament, and
not just with spirited elbow benders. Mickelson and fellow PGA
Tour regulars Billy Mayfair, Jim Carter, Dan Forsman and Pat
Perez all played their college golf at Arizona State, winner of
six individual and two team NCAA men's titles since 1983.
Mickelson, in particular, fed the Arizona golf obsession when, as
an amateur and a Sun Devils junior in 1991, he went to Tucson and
won the state's other PGA Tour event, the Northern Telecom Open.
But golf wasn't always big in the Grand Canyon State. "When I was
growing up, there were only two or three of us who played," says
Bob Goldwater, the retired head of the Goldwater's department
store chain and the man credited with starting the Phoenix Open.
The 1939 Open, held at the Phoenix Country Club, had a purse of
only $3,000, but that was enough to attract a decent field of
barnstorming pros--including winner Byron Nelson, who beat
runner-up Ben Hogan by 12 strokes. "The idea was to advertise the
Valley of the Sun," Goldwater recalls, "and it worked."
The sponsoring organization was a fledgling, all-male business
club called the Thunderbirds, whose members set a gaudy tone by
wearing silver-buckled Navajo concho belts and tunic shirts. (The
nonprofit Thunderbirds donate to charity the tournament's
proceeds, which have averaged about $2 million a year over the
last seven years.) In 1987 the Open moved to the TPC of
Scottsdale, a course designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish.
"The tournament exploded on the new property," says Joe Passov, a
Scottsdale-based p.r. consultant. "The Bird's Nest was behind the
18th green, and that translated into, Come out to the Open,
because the best party of the year is right off the 18th hole."
But it was Arizona's perfect climate for year-round golf that
began a surge in the sport in the mid-1970s, as Phoenix became an
increasingly attractive retirement city. The growth gained
momentum in '80, when developer Lyle Anderson hired Jack Nicklaus
to design Desert Highlands, a golf oasis in the Sonoran desert
north of Scottsdale. Dozens of daily-fee, resort and residential
courses followed, and now Arizona golf rings up $1.1 billion a
year in direct revenue.
The state's golf boom is actually a housing boom; roughly 37,000
homes a year have gone up over the past decade. Every year
140,000 people move to Arizona, a net increase of 100,000 per
annum. The newcomers are not all retirees either--the average age
in Arizona is less than the national average--and some in the
golf industry have seen that as an opportunity to target a
"Whenever the cool people are involved in something, it tends to
grow," says Del Cochran, developer of Scottsdale's trendy
Grayhawk Golf Club. Cochran signed Mickelson to represent the
club, made it easy for young Tour players like Geoff Ogilvy and
Aaron Baddeley to use the practice facilities, and livened up the
clubhouse by piping real rock music through faux rocks. "Our goal
was to create an attitudinal kind of relationship with the
market," says Cochran. He could just as well be describing the
Phoenix Open, which promotes the alien notion that a day in the
sun with Mark Calcavecchia can be as much fun as a night in a
tent with Huey Lewis and the News.
On second thought maybe it's not such an alien notion. In 1999,
when Woods sought and received a ruling that a boulder blocking
his way on the 13th hole was a "loose impediment" under the rules
of golf, course marshals and spectators put their shoulders to
the stone and rolled it away. Two years later Andrew Magee made
history on the 17th hole when his tee shot bounced onto the
green; ricocheted off the putter of Tom Byrum, who was lining up
a putt; and went in the cup. It is believed to be the only hole
in one on a par-4 in Tour history. (Magee, a blithe spirit, said,
"I know all of you are going to say it was a lucky shot.") The
thrills were more prolonged in 1996 when Mickelson and Justin
Leonard wowed the Sunday throng with a duel that Mickelson won on
the third hole of a playoff.
In fact, the only dull thing about the tournament is its new
name, the FBR Open. FBR stands for Friedman, Billings, Ramsey
Group, Inc., an investment bank headquartered in Arlington, Va.
As title sponsor, FBR will have its initials attached to the
Phoenix Open for the next five years--raising speculation that
the Thunderbirds will soon put up a big screen near 18 to show a
new video: Investment Bankers Gone Wild!
Anything to draw a crowd.
The Phoenix Open promotes the alien notion that a day in the sun
with Mark Calcavecchia can be as much fun as a night in a tent
with Huey Lewis and the News.
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