Why the Phoenix Open is like a four-day outdoor party disguised as a golf tournament

Experience the Waste Management Phoenix Open

The Waste Management Phoenix Open is a 4-day golf tournament unlike any other.
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The Waste Management Phoenix Open is a 4-day golf tournament unlike any other.

The music is pumping. The crowd is filled with trendy, attractive people talking about the great party and the next great party. The smiling bartenders look fashioned from a lululemon catalog.

It’s a scene reminiscent of a Las Vegas day party, where people travel to unwind, hang out near a pool and gaze at the bikini-clad scenery. But here, we’re on a golf course and the normal stuffy rules of a PGA tournament don’t apply (and they replace the bikinis with golf pros).

The Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale is a blend of sporting event and social scene that needs to be experienced to be understood. It’s where status is determined by your wristband and all the perks that come with it. I experienced it for the first time this week and was fortunate enough to have the access of a big wig. I’m wearing four wristbands as I write this (this is more of a self-indictment than flex, I assure you).

Corporate suites on the infamous 16th hole, where about 18,000 people are in a temporary stadium, and access to the Greenskeeper pavilion loaded with high-priced cabanas, hospitality suites and, most importantly, open bars. It felt like what Fyre Fest wanted to be – only right along an 18th fairway.

This event has been played during the same weekend as the Super Bowl since 1973, although it moved to a Wednesday through Saturday schedule due to the NFL’s championship game being played in nearby Tempe. The rowdy party can make for alternate viewing for sports fans. It will be aired Sunday morning on Golf Channel and in the afternoon on NBC.

Golf tournaments tend to be high brow. The biggest ones, such as the U.S. Open, ban cell phones to prevent fans from distracting golfers with noise and camera shutters. The Phoenix Open, however, features an army of patrons relying on their camera phones like oxygen.

The ushers placed by greens and tee boxes typically hold up “quiet” signs as the rule of law. People who don’t obey are often escorted out by security. At the Phoenix Open, sponsored by Waste Management, those signs are just suggestions and it’s understood by the golfers that silence will be impossible to come by.

And that could be why some of the biggest names in the sport decline to play. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson didn’t participate this week, either because of scheduling or the fact they don’t want to be around the rambunctious – and enormous – crowds who say what they feel.

Anyone finding themselves beyond 30 feet of the pin at 16 can expect a chorus of boos from the gallery of spectators, even though many in the crowd would be lucky to hit the green altogether. Many golfers pretend to ignore the ribbing. Some smile and wave sarcastically.

Others embrace the scene. Ricky Fowler on Friday activated the lively crowd by waving his arms to encourage as much noise as possible. He went on to birdie the 163-yard hole, the second of four consecutive birdies to end the day with a sterling 65 to begin Saturday atop the leaderboard. Fowler was one of many golfers to toss gift packs to fans in the nearby grandstand.

Jon Rahm, a Spaniard who went to nearby Arizona State, also boosted up the crowd at 16 on Thursday with enthusiasm. Phil Mickelson, arguably the tournament’s top draw and another ASU alum, was more measured Friday with a standard, focused approach. But that could be because he was on his way toward missing the cut after previously winning the event three times.

There were men draped in Canadian flags with signs that said “I’m Sorry” as a nod to the stereotype of politeness from our neighbors to the north. Another man was shirtless wearing red suspenders, because why not? There were women wearing very little clothing and tall heels, contrasting from the swaths of middle-aged men in dri-fit polos, cargo shorts and running shoes.

Really, the Phoenix Open is a party masquerading as a golf tournament. And no wonder it’s one of the most attended events in the sport. The desert weather is generally perfect, allowing people from colder parts of the country to experience sunshine in the dead of winter.

According to the event’s website, more than 719,000 people attended the event in 2018, with an absurd 216,818 canvassing the course on Saturday alone. The last three Saturdays of the tournament have all drawn over 200,000, and this year there were new tents and temporary structures added to make the party even more robust.

Really, if you’d like an introduction to a live golf experience but want other socializing options if you get bogged down, the Phoenix Open is definitely worth the trip.

Amid the thumping music and people watching, you might have to remind yourself you’re at a sporting event.

Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.