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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Postcard from Phoenix: A day inside sport’s party vortex

Hideki Matsuyama dives to the ground to catch a scorecard that blew out of his hand on the 12th green at TPC Scottsdale, in Arizona, Feb. 9, 2023.

By Joe Drape

The wind was whipping like a blender working overtime on a margarita Thursday morning, and the more than 17,000 people bellied up to the 16th hole at the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona acted as if it were last call.

If you want cemeterylike quiet, kneel politely before the golf gods at the Masters’ “Amen Corner.”

This is the People’s Open, and the 16th is the loudest hole on the rowdiest stop on the PGA Tour. Jon Rahm, a U.S. Open champion, said the decibels have risen exponentially from year to year.

“Very few sporting events in the world can comfortably happen in the same week as the Super Bowl and still have the impact that they have like this one,” Rahm said. “With that said, I don’t think it’s everybody’s favorite — I think either you love it or hate it. There’s no in between. With my case, I love it.”

The tournament is an annual destination for fans who refuse to bow to stuffy golf etiquette and, for that reason, the fairways at the TPC Scottsdale course are lined with younger and rowdier attendees than anywhere else in golf. With the Super Bowl in town, golf’s party capital was not only supercharged, but it also helped the 91-year-old tournament sell out its second- and third-round tickets for the first time.

Nate Orr, a lawyer, traveled from Kansas City, Missouri, with his friends Jared Kenealy and Micheal Lawrence. They’re Chiefs season-ticket holders who sprung for Super Bowl seats Sunday but found themselves in a box on the edge of the 16th green, where they watched golf balls ricochet off the panels beneath them and trickle into sand traps.

“Bucket list stuff,” said Lawrence, an executive at a nonprofit.

Tony Finau, the world No. 13, was greeted like a gladiator at the so-called coliseum hole after knocking his tee shot 16 inches from the flag. When he sunk the gimme for a birdie, the crowd roared as exuberantly as it had in Arrowhead Stadium last month when Harrison Butker booted the game-winning field goal that landed Kansas City in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Rory McIlroy was booed for merely backing off his ball as the wind gusted.

When Jordan Spieth, ranked No. 17, yanked his 5-or-so-foot birdie putt, however, the boos reached a crescendo. How to describe the crowd’s ardor? Imagine Philadelphia Eagles fans greeting Chip Kelly’s return. It was that venomous.

Chants of “Go Chiefs” and “Fly Eagles Fly” were part of the tournament’s already-booming soundtrack as football fans were among those in the long lines of people waiting to secure seats in the Coliseum’s general-admission grandstand.

The crowd was just as rough on the celebrities who competed in the Pro-Am on Wednesday. Olympic great Michael Phelps, retired Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Carli Lloyd, a former soccer star of the U.S. women’s national team, were announced at the tee box with DJ music, but they were razzed and roared at as they made their way to the green.

Name another hole where it can rain suds and thunder beer cans as it did last year when Sam Ryder aced the 16th in the third round to set off a delirious celebration that halted play for 15 minutes so volunteers could pick up the cans.

Alas, aluminum cans inside the Coliseum were banned this week and replaced with plastic cups.

Where else are gallery members enlisted to remove a boulder as they were in 1999 so Tiger Woods could get a clear shot at the green? It took a dozen of them, and the blessing of a rules official, but after a few heave-hos Woods got his birdie.

Enclosed from tee to green by a grandstand that reaches three stories, an army of aggressive and clever beer vendors helped lubricate the crowd Thursday.

“I got a Coors with your name on it — what’s your name?” went one’s singsong mantra.

Unlike the golfers they came to watch, patrons of the People’s Open do not even have to make it through all 18 holes. The Birds Nest, a party tent near the course’s entrance, starts throbbing in late afternoon as tournament goers get ready to dance into the night to performances by Machine Gun Kelly and the Chainsmokers.

Yes, the Phoenix Open has its charms. Ask McIlroy.

“If I wasn’t a player and I wanted to come to one PGA Tour event,” he said after shooting 2-over in his opening round, “this would probably be the one that I’d want to come to.”

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