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Bickley: Welcome to Saturday at the Open, where fans crave anarchy

A look at the fans on the 16th hole during the second round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Saturday at the Open. Packed like sardines. Parked miles away. The scent of perfume and portable toilets. The most attended day of golf on any tour, anywhere.

The best Saturday on our sporting calendar.

There are four things that make the Waste Management Phoenix Open so special, especially on this day:

No. 1: The tournament fits our profile as a vain, vacuous, big-event sports town that likes to drink and people watch and occasionally pay attention to the actual athletic competition. Occasionally.

No other golf tournament reaches a crescendo in the third round. No other golf tournament suffers a huge decrease in vibe and crowd size on Sunday, the day they actually crown a champion.

No. 2: The tournament is held on a sloping, hilly course that offers great viewing for spectators while also handling massive crowds.

No. 3: It feeds our love of anarchy, where galleries are constantly tweaking the establishment. In recent years, fans are arriving in increasingly outlandish costumes. On Saturday, a group came attired in fully-body banana suits. It’s the Mardi Gras of golf, clearly mocking the stuffy, occasionally insufferable country-club sport where competitors get mad if they hear coins jingling in your pocket.

This is a tournament of empowerment. We are the story, not the athletes. We are the ones in control. We pay attention when we want to. We boo when the mood strikes. We don’t make the rules, but we don’t follow them, either. They suck up to us, currying our favor. They’ll do anything to avoid our wrath.

No. 4: Stadium golf was invented on these grounds, and the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is now the best sporting venue in Arizona. Better than State Farm Stadium. Better than any Cactus League facility. And it’s all about the energy.

Fans in Arizona are often criticized for not attending sporting events, for leaving our stadiums half-empty. Not here.

At 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, a friend lined up for the annual Running of the Bulls – the mad dash of patrons seeking choice seating at the 16th hole. There were already 600 people in front of him. Including 10 people who traveled from Australia.

Remove the screaming people, and the 16th hole is a layup for professional golfers. A short par-3, an easy wedge in benign conditions, with not a drop of water in sight. Good players could par the hole blindfolded. But the pressure of performing in front of raucous drunken mob of 22,000 people is what makes this hole so phenomenal.

We’re the hazards of the hole. Players fear us far more than they do a greenside bunker.

The vibe inside this temporary golf structure is exhilarating and dangerous. It has been compared to the Roman Colosseum. Volunteers hold up “Quiet” signs, fully aware they are surfing on currents they can’t always control. Players hear the stadium roars from all over the course. They start thinking about No. 16 long before they play No. 16.

It is everything you want from a communal sporting experience. Over the years, smart golfers have learned to play along and embrace the scene.

Example 1: J.T. Poston hit a safe shot to the center of the green on Saturday. His ball rolled to a stop 24’10” from the hole. Boos filled the stadium.

Harry Higgs hit the same shot moments later. His ball landed 24’2” from the hole. But this time, the crowd cheered. Why?

Because Higgs was smart enough to play to the mob, asking for more noise before his tee shot. So the crowd deemed him a friendly, granting him a reprieve, a thumbs up.

Wisely, Poston made up for his conservative approach. His caddy promptly threw golf balls wrapped with $10 bills into the crowd. Attached was a note signed by Poston that read, “Chug Your Next One on Me.”

Example 2: Joel Dahmen is a PGA Tour pro who met his wife at a pizza joint in Old Town Scottsdale. When he showed up on Saturday, fans at No. 16 began chanting, “Pizza with Lona!” He stepped away from his ball in disbelief and started laughing.

Example 3: A group of diehards also planned on presenting J.B. Holmes with a Colts jersey bearing Reggie Wayne’s surname and the No. 87. Holmes is a huge Colts fan, and the jersey pokes fun of the 87 that Holmes shot at the British Open in 2019, a final-round performance that sent him plummeting 64 spots down the leaderboard, costing him $700,000 in prize money.

The jersey was inscribed with the following:

“Out 41, In 46.”

“The Most Expensive 18 holes ever played!”

“Sincerely, your pals at the 16th hole.”

Late on Saturday, the group called an audible. They knew Holmes is in contention for this year’s title. They decided the wound was too fresh. They’re saving the gift for another time.

It proves the WMPO also has a lot of heart. Beyond the $14 million the Thunderbirds raised for charity in 2020. Even on ground level of the Gladiator Pit.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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