This week marks the PGA Tour's now-legendary stop in Scottsdale, where nearly 200,000 people will gather, ON A SINGLE DAY, to watch golf. Well, some of them will be watching golf.
The Waste Management Phoenix Open has become the poster child for the golf party. A tournament where it’s not only acceptable to hand out merchandise to fans (just don’t throw it), some players will even waive their right to silence.
Golf purists cringe this week at the mashup between the gentlemen’s game and Delta Tau Chi, but why? The greatest horse race in the world balances fancy hats and over-sugared bourbon with an infield of mud and mayhem. The greatest automobile race in the world has gearheads on the outside of the track, while a Snake Pit slithers out of control on the inside. Even this week’s Super Bowl, where game tickets are limited and controlled, is an endless lead up of parties from A-list to A-nybody.
The point? The sports business is all about the event. It’s entertainment. Golf is no different. In a fast-paced world where the entertainment dollar hops from one trend to the next, keeping a foothold with a young generation is difficult. Golf, one could say, tops the list of sports needing to find ways to attract a younger audience through the gates. Of the half-a-million who venture to TPC Scottsdale this week, it is reasonable to assume some percentage may be more interested in the sport afterwards. So party on, Phoenix! Crank up the volume and relish your place atop the list of the best social stops on Tour each year. And if you want to pack up mom’s van and grab your college buddies for the best of the rest, tackle this list:
1. The Waste Management Phoenix Open
Short of a beer company, having the outfit that hauls the empties away makes perfect sense. Consumption is so woven into the fabric of this event that beer vendors work the bathroom lines. Ten times since 2002, attendance has topped 500,000, making weekend days the “8th largest city in Arizona,” according to the tournament’s website. (And, by the way, it's a zero-waste event, even with all that aluminum and plastic in hands.)
That last part is big because the tournament has long embraced the party element, culminating at the 16th hole, where hole-in-ones register on the Richter scale and balls struck half-a-groove low are booed mercilessly. It is the closest golf comes to almost any other spectator sport, or a rock concert.
But, don’t let the stereotypes of the party diminish the quality of many in attendance. There may not be a better golf community in the world, from snowbirds to year-round links junkies. There are a lot of them. They are loud. But they know their golf. For golf fans everywhere, one day in the coliseum should be on the bucket list.
2. The Players Championship
This tournament gets a bump past those in third and fourth because of the golf. When your golf party also includes the best assembled field in the sport and stakes only surpassed by four other tournaments worldwide, you’ve got the making for a high intensity thrill ride. Couple that with Pete Dye’s gem at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, one of the world’s best spectator layouts, and the golf element may be the best value of any tournament.
Everybody knows about the closing stretch of three holes, but some of Dye’s mounding throughout (try behind the green at 4) gives you several choices on where to survey the action.
What is lost on many fans are the entertainment options for those on the ground, with over a half dozen large public outposts around the property, enormous corporate hospitality surrounding 17 and 18, and a giant village as you enter. With ticket availability a bit easier than most major championships, it has become a party pilgrimage for many die-hard golf fans. And, unlike most majors, where unruliness is feared and closely guarded, The Players has a history of edginess in the crowd. Just ask Sergio Garcia.
3. The AT&T Byron Nelson
Up until Lord Byron’s passing in 2006, the only place you could drink on property during his tournament was inside one corporate tent on property. A decade later, the Metroplex millennials are out in force at the wildest fan stop in the Texas Swing. The TPC Four Seasons isn’t the greatest course to navigate, with most of the spectator action confined to the six holes nearest the clubhouse (1, 2, 3, 16, 17, 18), but golf isn’t the priority for many of the patrons.
Give credit to the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, whose signature red pants match the loudness of the weekend party. They have reinvented a tournament stuck in a tough spot on the Tour schedule as the place to be for many who otherwise wouldn’t be seen on a golf course. (It also has boosted charitable giving up over $140 million for kids in need.)
If you make the trip, enjoy the duality of watching the pros try and navigate the diabolical 18th hole, while co-eds in 4-inch heels do the same on the sloped cart paths.
The Western Golf Association has a built-in advantage with a course rotation. Chicago is a rabid golf town, despite seasonal weather, proved during the 2012 Ryder Cup. While Conway Farms is a little remote, and features a layout that can make for a quieter tournament, Medinah is back in the rotation (2019) with stops in Indianapolis (Crooked Stick again this year), Philadelphia (Aronimink in 2018) and Denver (Cherry Hills in 2014) all in the portfolio.
The hospitality has always been top notch, from high-end suites to fan experience. It is a major championship for those who organize it, and they’ve channeled that power to deliver golf to major metropolitan areas that miss out on the world’s best golfers each year. While it doesn’t pack the decibel levels of Scottsdale or Ponte Vedra, the energy of the tournament recycles each year to create a tremendous event. You’ll have a great time, with perhaps slightly less of a hangover!
5. The Honda Classic
Unlike the other spots on the Florida Swing, this one is through-and-through Florida. Doral is for the vacationers, Tampa is for the retirees and Bay Hill is for Arnie. But Palm Beach Gardens is all about affluence and abundance in Florida.
Everybody (players, media, fans) come in through the same place, eye-checking the latest Lambo parked next to the valet stand.
The PGA National resort features a central bar that doubles as an impromptu dance floor when the final group is off the course and the party is forced indoors.
Outside, the Champion Course has given fans the best early-season tournament the past few seasons, highlighted by 2014’s appearance of eight of the top 10 in the world. The Bear Trap is must-see drama, with 800 yards of water-lined holes, wrapped by grandstands and chalets where you can wet your whistle all day. If you are looking for the liveliest stop on the Florida swing, this one tops the list.