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Dan Bickley

WM Phoenix Open missing its soul without raucous crowds

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 05: Fans look on near the 18th hole during the second round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 05, 2021 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Golf wins. Anarchy loses. Beer vendors mourn with the drivers for hire.

That’s the story of the Waste Management Pandemic Open.

Diehard fans must be thrilled. If you prefer serenity with your golf, along with no-hassle parking and close proximity to the professionals, the 2021 WMPO is a slice of heaven. The silence is deafening. One golfer said it looks and feels like an LPGA event.

On Saturday, I stopped to put my keys in my pocket and my phone in my jacket and was nearly steamrolled by a group of pros walking briskly to the 10th tee box. You wouldn’t believe the difference around here.

Meanwhile, the leaderboard is made for purists, commanding the attention of every serious person in the sport: a showdown between rising Xander Schauffele and fallen hero Jordan Spieth, who fired 10 birdies on Saturday while carding a 61.

Imagine if Spieth’s third-round performance had played out before a full house. Would he have been capable?

“We all know what Saturday afternoon is here,” Spieth said.

Alas, we also know something is missing around here. Namely, the soul of the tournament. The hundreds of thousands of fans who pack the Scottsdale TPC, a mob scene that represents the only true hazard on the course.

Gone are the college kids who haven’t been to sleep in two days and the cart-path clacking of stiletto heels. Missing are the cosplay heroes and world-class hecklers who normally populate No. 16, including a core group that had been coming to the tournament for over two decades.

Normally, a Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is one of the great days on the sporting calendar. The energy is insane. There is a buzz, a hum and a mass of humanity that feels like Woodstock waiting for Jimi Hendrix to get onstage.

It’s our Mardi Gras of golf. It’s Animal House on top of Caddyshack. It’s the Valley’s wild side, the devil on our shoulder, the way our community turns golf into a gladiator sport.

This year, the WMPO felt like Bourbon Street on Sunday morning. The emptiness was profound.

The tournament allowed 5,000 spectators a day, a modest number that showed great restraint given the spacious, outdoor setting. But with Arizona’s spiking Covid-19 rates, the last thing the PGA Tour and the WMPO needed were snapshots of derelict defiance: unmasked fans, drunken revelry, with zero regard for social distancing.

This tournament is succeeding by staging a responsible, compelling golf competition that looks great on television. The WMPO is playing the right cards inside a bad hand. And in the end, they might be saved by sublime weather (the forecast was iffy two weeks ago) and a Sunday showdown that could captivate the entire sport.

But I want our party back. The one that makes bucket lists. The one that never ends.

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

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier