A gallery of nutty behavior, the FBR's 16th makes golf bend its ways
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The formula that has helped the FBR (formerly Phoenix) Open become the most attended golf event in the world is simple: sun, a traditionally strong field and beer.
Much like the Triple Crown horse races - minus the traditional upscale attire - the FBR Open is a place where 20- and 30-somethings mingle seamlessly with people twice their age. Young and old partake in the same kind of drunken tomfoolery that is often associated with frat parties and wedding receptions - basically, everything that flies in the face of traditional golf gallery decorum.
The TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course - home of the FBR Open - is designed to be fan-friendly. The holes have large mounds on either side that make it easy for more than 100,000 people a day to have a good spot to see Tour players in action.
But the best seats in the house are in the bleachers and corporate boxes that surround the tee box at the famed 16th hole. The 162-yard par 3 is where the hijinks push the envelope and the course goes from fan-friendly to pro-inhospitable.
"I felt like I was in the movie, 'Gladiator,'" said Bo Van Pelt, a Nationwide Tour player who qualified for his first FBR Open this year. "I felt like someone was going into the circle. Luckily, I hit a good shot today and they didn't rag on me too bad."
The crowd on No. 16 had its routine. They watched the players putt on No. 15. They gave their mixed reception as the threesome entered the tee box. Players were cheered if they were an Arizona State or University of Arizona alum, or if they made their home in the Scottsdale-Phoenix area. Otherwise, it depended on the mood of the 15,000 inebriated fans. During preshot routines, the chattiness resembled sounds heard outside of a restaurant kitchen - muffled voices and occasional clangs, laughs and barks. The nanosecond each player made contact, half the fans screamed, "Get in the hole!" If the ball hit the green, the crowd applauded. If it missed the green or was more than 25 feet from the hole, they booed.
"You're hitting an 8-iron," said Chris DiMarco, 2002 Phoenix Open Champion. "If you miss the green, you almost deserve to get booed."
But as DiMarco can attest, the fans also can cross the line of decency. While in the middle of a putting stroke on 16 in the year he won the tournament, a fan yelled, "Miss it Noonan" - re-enacting a scene from the movie "Caddyshack." DiMarco holed the putt and had the fan removed.
At the tee box, fans have screamed before impact. Often, an inebriated fan will open his or her mouth not knowing a player was about to swing. But not all the fans are inebriated. In fact, not everyone is a fan. Since the FBR Open is the place to be and to be seen, Phoenix practically shuts down for the four days the PGA Tour is in town.
"We always come for the party," said Michelle Hunter, a Chandler resident who doesn't follow golf. "I got tickets from a friend who works with one of these corporations and I heard 16 was the party hole."
Inside the 16th's tents and bleachers
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, every radio station in Phoenix had ticket giveaways for what is billed as "The greatest show on grass." With the abysmal Phoenix professional sports scene during the winter months - the NBA's Suns are in a rebuilding cycle and the NFL's Cardinals are a perennial moribund franchise - the FBR Open is the city's biggest sports event. Every year the tournament falls on the days leading up to the Super Bowl. To Phoenix sports fans, seats at the TPC's 16th hole are as valuable as 50-yard-line Super Bowl tickets.
"The atmosphere here is festive," said Dale Seidner, a Phoenix man who was watching from the corporate terrace behind the tee box. "It's better than any sporting event I've been to, better than football or baseball. And the 16th is the place to be."
Next door to Seidner was a group of men in their 30s who were reunited for a weekend of booze, babe watching (few tournaments can challenge in this category) and betting. This fraternity was the classic FBR Open subculture. Most of the men were longtime friends who separated over time. One of them, who is member of the charitable group that runs the tournament called, The Thunderbirds, reserves a box on the 16th hole every year for a reunion. It started out as a couple of guys, and every year the group grows by two or three people.
At 10 a.m., they took their seats and ordered mixed drinks from a chipper waitress. Drinks were free in the corporate tents, and the wait staff, made mostly of young attractive females, collected a killing in tips. They did, however, have to endure inebriated patrons and their wisecracks. In a different area of the corporate tents, 19-year-old Chandler waitress Rocio Curiel said a group of men convinced a woman in their section to make a pass at her by asking for her phone number.
"That threw me off," Curiel said. "That has never happened to me before. It was pretty funny. Still, the 16th is the best hole to work at. Usually, at the end of the day, they get a little huggy-huggy, but it's harmless."
Next to drinking, wagering was the most popular pastime at the 16th. As each threesome entered the tee box, guys in the aforementioned group took turns betting on which player would hit it closest to the hole. In many cases, whoever picked last chose a player he'd never heard of, which only added to the excitement. If that player happened to be closest to the hole, he received the bettor's appreciation with extra gusto.
"After this, it was either Las Vegas or home," said Mike Pope, a man who flew in from Kansas City to join his friendly reunion. "But after three days here, I can't handle Vegas."
The betting game was everywhere, even the more subdued corporate types in the Met Life tent got in on the action. They had a good time rationalizing their selections with one another and giggling every time one of the college kids in the bleachers across the way came up with something witty to shout.
Those Arizona State college students must have been saving their pennies for quite some time. Outside of the corporate tents, 16-ounce beers cost $6 each. And judging by their goofy and off-color remarks, they emptied their pockets and probably set themselves back a few weeks in beer money. No doubt the FBR folks will rethink their decision to occupy the corporate tents next to the bleacher section. The scene wasn't far from having the English royalty separated from soccer hooligans by only a single metal bar.
Inside the ropes
Many of the younger tour professionals enjoyed the atmosphere, while the veterans were split. So, what's the overall consensus of No. 16? It's the rowdiest hole on the PGA Tour. Some players compared it to the Ryder Cup and No. 17 green at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, home of the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. Since they knew what to expect, no player took dead aim and declared the situation at No. 16 untenable.
"I now know what a quarterback feels like when calling an audible in an away stadium," said Jeff Slumam.
"When you walk off 15 green to 16 tee, there's definitely electricity in the air," said Hank Kuehne. "I have a different mentality than a lot of guys. I love it. I think it's something that gets you charged up and ready to go. It was a great experience and a lot of fun. Wouldn't want it every week, but as far as my first time, I really enjoyed it."
Most tried to embrace the spirit of the crowd, unless they missed the green, at which point the mindset was: "Let's get out of here before they start throwing tomatoes."
But the 16th gave true golf fans at least one gift. Bernhard Langer, the next European Ryder Cup captain, rarely breaks from his stoic game face. On Saturday of this year's Open, Langer stuck his tee shot on No. 16 five feet from the hole. During the raucous ovation, he egged on the crowd by flapping his arms up and down in a manner that seemed stiff, but it was as loose as he'd ever been during a tournament.
After his round, Langer grinned when he was asked about the 16th.
"They're having a good time over there," he said. "And so did I."
February 8, 2003