Photo By Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Cronkite News: The 16th hole at the WM Phoenix Open rivals some of the best-known staples in sports – and it’s only growing each year in popularity.
By Remy Mastey/Cronkite News
SCOTTSDALE – Although on the scorecard, the 16th hole at the WM Phoenix Open is a nondescript short par-3 on the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course layout, it is unlike any other hole on the PGA Tour.
The otherwise ordinary hole is surrounded by a pop-up coliseum that seats more than 20,000 golf fans, who chant, cheer, boo, scream, and occasionally let fly with empty and not-so-empty beer cans to celebrate a great shot or voice their displeasure for the bad ones.
The sounds of a fraternity party mingled with the familiar fragrances hops and malted barley are the essence of the 16th. Most of the golfers and virtually all of the fans love it.
“I challenge you to bring me any World Series, any football game, any event, any FIFA World Cup – hole 16 puts it in the dirt,” said Nicholas Bommarito, a fan watching the tournament on the 16th.
The hole began to grow in popularity as a place to be during the tournament when Phil Mickelson was invited to play in the tournament while still on the team at Arizona State. Fraternity and sorority members who knew Mickelson, or of him, gathered there to be close to portable toilets and a beer and hotdog stand stationed there.
As word spread that there was a party going on at 16, where fans could also view the 15th “island” green and the driveable par-4 17th, the crowds swelled.
Then Tiger Woods came along and provided a viral moment that helped solidify the 16th hole’s reputation with one glorious shot. He aced the hole in 1997, and the skies opened and the beers came raining down.
“The hole-in-one from Tiger Woods in 1997 started it all,” said Robert Julian, captain of the course marshals who work the hole. “It definitely picked up popularity when we pulled in the big-name golfers, primarily Tiger Woods. It’s become this dynamic hole, which is unbelievable.”
By 2011, the 16th had become known as the “Coliseum.” Bleachers around the hole were expanded. Luxury suites were stacked on top. The hole was eventually totally enclosed, with a for players to enter as they walk off the 15th green.
The hole not only has 3,700 general admission seats but is topped off by suites and skybox seating. Fans line up at the tournament entrance long before the sun rises and there is a sprint to No. 16 for the open seating.
In its early years as a tournament magnet, the hole was sometimes criticized by players because of the mostly uncontrolled rowdiness. However, younger generations of players have embraced it as a unique feature on their Tour.
“This place can’t be duplicated,” said Rickie Fowler, who won the Phoenix Open in 2019. “This is kind of special in its own way. I don’t think anything will ever be what this is. That is why this is such a special week, and I love it.”
Fans make the hole unique. Fans from across the country gather there, many wearing goofy, extravagant outfits. They serenade players with their college fight songs and boo loudly when a shot that normally would receive a polite “golf clap” lands further from the hole than they’d like. They even created “caddy races” there several years ago, with fans picking their caddy and roaring in celebration if he or she reached the green first.
The PGA Tour decided to clamp down on that practice as caddies took to sprinting for the green.
“I think this event really invites the person that wants to have a good time with everybody and do something a little bit out of the ordinary,” said Scott Branigan, a fan at the WM Phoenix Open who happened to be wearing a banana costume.
“You can do anything you want here. I invite everyone to come here and do it as you will, have your own fun with it. You don’t have to wear golf clothes. You don’t have to wear a banana suit. You can come here and kind of be your own person and get out of it what you want.”
It’s called “The People’s Open” for a reason. On the weekend of the WM Phoenix Open this year, fans began arriving at about 2:30 a.m. to wait for the sprint to 16. As the gates to TPC Scottsdale opened up at 6:45 a.m. the early birds raced across the course to the “Coliseum” just to be part of the theatrics.
Those who don’t want to make the sprint begin lining up to get into the stadium hole when the early arrivers experience an inevitable bladder emergency and have to utilize the portable toilets lined up outside.
Some fans return year after year.
“Honestly, we only come here for the 16th hole,” said Dan Mcilhattan, who was watching the action on the 16th. “It’s the one place in any tournament that you can go to across the country that’s unique. There is no stadium or course like this. If you are coming to this tournament, you have to be at the 16th hole.”
“Hole 16 at the Waste Management Open is just unlike any other experience you’ve ever had in your entire life,” he said. “I mean, you come out here at the crack of dawn before 6 a.m., run with your friends to get a seat. And I mean, you’re trying to kind of compensate. I’m hungry, I’m tired and you just rally and have a great day. That’s what the 16th hole brings to the table.”
Meanwhile, marshals like Julian try to strike a balance between allowing the fun that happens at 16 and the need for at least a semblance of control.
Whether it’s picking up beer cans off of the green, retrieving the hot dog an overzealous fan has pitched into a greenside bunker, or chasing the occasional patron who decides it’s a good idea to remove clothing and streak onto the course, volunteers working the 16th have a lot to manage.
It takes a special kind of volunteer.
“You got to like golf and…it just draws you back,” Julian said. “You want to see it. This hole is really, really important.”
And really, really different.