The well-oiled machine, that is to say, the faithful denizens of the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s 16th hole, were already in full swing by 5:30 a.m. on Saturday. Golf fans from Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Canada and even New Zealand were among the early ones limbering up for the most important part of the day: the sprint for seating. Most of the front runners arrived at the gate nearer 3 a.m.

For those who like golf and like a party, this magnet is a powerful one.

Even for the pros.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” Hunter Swafford said. “You just got to embrace it and enjoy it. It’s fun.”

Louder football games and louder hockey games exist. But no venue on the PGA has the atmosphere that the 16th can offer.

At 6:45 a.m., the powers that be, better known as the charitable arm of the tournament, the Thunderbirds, decided that it was better to let loose the wave. By 7 a.m. those who weren’t already in – or at least had a very good position in line – lost the race for general admission seating inside. By 7:20 it was over. With the first wave of golfers not set to hit the 16th for at least two hours, prospects faded. Hope did not.

Soon, when including corporate seating, 16,000 would fill the arena that is 16.

The “Coliseum” has become one of the most popular stops in all of the PGA.

When the first group finally reached the tees, they were met with the most enthusiastic and out of tune singing of the National Anthem one is likely to hear. The course marshalls innocently, yet diligently, raised “Quiet” signs, while some golfers defiantly stoked the flames, asking the crowd for more.

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Tournament runner-up Tony Finau embraced the experience, wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey when he played 16. Twice he birdied the hole.

“Just to be in that atmosphere and feel that electricity and the energy from all the crowd,” he said. “I was happy that I was able to capitalize on that one on 16. That was quite fun to hit that shot and, man, I’m pretty happy with being a couple under in that Kobe jersey.”

One section of the crowd, nearest the tee box, led the charge. Brothers Mike and Dave Leonard, attendees of the Phoenix Open for the last 20 years, have perfected their game and have custom chants for nearly every player on the course.

“We had this guy, Patrick Flavin, and his girlfriend was Emily Young, so we started chanting Emily Young left him,” said Mike Leonard, who lives in Minnesota. “Flavin immediately began giving the cut motion. Turns out they’re broken up and he’s just dying laughing, so that was probably the funniest.”

In 2013, the PGA put an end to one of the signature 16th events: the caddy races. As soon as the last player of the group had struck the ball, the caddies were off, clubs and all, to see who could touch the green first. It often ended with spills, dropped bags, diving finishes and total hilarity. The event was a fan favorite, not only for the fun, but the prospect of a little extra pocket cash. There were side bets in the stands.

“The caddy races are still kind of secretly going on.” Mike Leonard said. “There’s still guys that are betting, like, which caddy’s gonna touch the green first. Even though the caddys don’t know that they’re racing, there’s still people betting on them.”

The players that are OK with this type of environment are easy to spot —they show up. Crowd favorites like Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson and former Arizona State standout Jon Rahm not only embrace the chaos but incite it by throwing gifts into the crowd.

“Yesterday, Bubba Watson probably had the best giveaway that we’ve ever seen in twenty years.” Leonard said. “There was Oakleys, there was hats, there was socks, there was T-shirts, there was a teddy bear, and he was throwing out big things like that.”

Watson remains a big fan of the tournament.

“It’s growing, it’s growing tremendously,” Watson said. “I think … the Thunderbirds have created an atmosphere (where) the cities are really behind it, Phoenix and Scottsdale.

“This has got to be one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The amount of people that come through the gates over a seven-day period or whatever it is, pretty amazing.”


Story by Squire Harrington, Cronkite News