Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 2, 2014

Before The Game, Kevin Stadler Has A Super Sunday

In all but two of the last forty years the PGA Tour has made its annual stop in the Phoenix area during Super Bowl week. Once again this weekend, as those with tickets to the big game struggled through long security waits while making their way to MetLife Stadium the touring pros were making their way around the TPC of Scottsdale in the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. While there is no evidence that golf’s schedule makers check with NFL headquarters when mapping out the Tour’s calendar, the confluence of the two events is strikingly appropriate.

Once it was just the championship game of an American sports league, an event made necessary when the team owners of the old renegade AFL finally forced their way into a merger with the patrician NFL. But over time the Super Bowl has evolved into an annual celebration of popular culture. With this year’s game in metropolitan New York, a long stretch of Broadway was converted into Super Bowl Boulevard, an outdoor festival that was jammed with tourists throughout the week. On Saturday night Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports management agency staged a huge party that competed with a bash sponsored by DirectTV where the featured entertainer was, you guessed it, Jay-Z. Those without invitations to either event could join millions around the country tuning into the “NFL Honors” on television, a two-hour production that was equal parts announcement of the league’s various individual awards and an exercise in self-congratulation by the most popular and successful sports league in the country.

On Sunday millions tuned in from all corners of the globe, many without the least knowledge of the rules or rhythms of American football. Uncounted numbers of those watching had vastly greater interest in rating the countless commercials than in following the game. The Fox network, owner of this year’s broadcast rights, began the pregame show four and one-half hours before the scheduled kickoff. When the pregame show runs half again as long as it takes to play the game itself, it is fair to say that Super Sunday has become about something other than the NFL’s championship tilt.

In like manner, as it has grown over the years into the PGA Tour’s annual frat party, the Phoenix Open has become about something other than professional golf. The catalyst for that change was the tournament’s move a quarter century ago to the then-new TPC of Scottsdale’s Stadium Course. As with other TPC layouts around the country, the Stadium Course was designed with spectators in mind. Several holes feature natural mounding that creates grassy seating areas for fans. It’s also a sprawling links, able to accommodate thousands upon thousands of spectators.

In recent years tournament organizers, not content to take what the Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish design provides naturally, have added man-made seating areas that are unique on Tour. There are acres of bleachers along the par-4 17th hole and a vast veranda of seating to the left of the 18th fairway. On top of that, the par-3 16th hole is completely enclosed by grandstands, a stadium hole on the Stadium Course.

To the unique setting add aggressive marketing by the Phoenix Thunderbirds, the local civic organization that sponsors the tournament, and the result in an event unlike any other Tour stop. This year a single-day attendance record was set on Saturday, when 189,722 fans made their way to the Scottsdale links. For the week just over 563,000 walked the grounds, setting another record. With only slightly smaller numbers in recent years, the Phoenix Open welcomes more than a few fans who don’t know the difference between a wood and a wedge. What they do know is that the 16th hole is a great place for a party. The grandstands encircling the little par-3 are packed with spectators who are increasingly well-lubricated as each day goes on. Players must hit their shots in the midst of a constant background buzz of noise that crescendos into riotous roars for a good shot or echoing boos when a poorly struck iron finds a greenside bunker.

Like the Super Bowl, the Phoenix Open is more about the spectacle than the competition. As such it’s a tournament that cries out to be won by a showman. Last year fan favorite Phil Mickelson, who spent part of his youth and his college years in the area, filled that role ably when he won wire to wire. Phil thrilled the assembled throngs by nearly shooting 59 in the opening round, his long putt for that number on the 18th rimming out of the cup.

With Mickelson playing gingerly as he recovers from a back injury, this year’s tournament looked like it belonged to Bubba Watson. Even more than Mickelson, Watson would be the ideal Phoenix Open champion, for Watson is the PGA Tour’s ultimate showman. He drives the Dodge Charger nicknamed General Lee from the old Dukes of Hazard television show; and can be found on YouTube in a video driving a hovercraft turned into a golf cart across a water hazard. Both the shaft and head of his driver are hot pink, while the prodigious shots that he hits with the club are just hot. He won the 2012 Masters in a playoff by executing what amounted to a trick shot from deep in the trees along the 10th fairway at Augusta National. At last year’s Ryder Cup Watson encouraged the fans to pump up the volume on the first tee, perfectly presaging the atmosphere in Scottsdale.

Watson began the final round with a two-stroke lead, but fans paying close attention might have seen warning signs in his scores. He opened with a 64, followed by a 66 and then a 68. All fine returns, but not a good trend line. Sure enough, playing partner Kevin Stadler quickly caught Watson with a pair of birdies on the first two holes. After Watson battled back ahead, Stadler took the lead with a two-shot swing on the 9th hole. But two holes later Watson pulled back in front when Stadler’s drive wound up impaled on a cactus, leading to a double bogey.

Then amidst the din on the 16th, Watson pulled his iron into a bunker, and was unable to save par. Stadler’s safe three moved him back into a tie, and there the pair remained until the final hole. On the 18th Watson’s drive wandered into the right rough, and his wedge from there flew over the green. When he was unable to get up and down the tournament that had been Bubba’s suddenly belonged to Kevin Stadler.

Stadler is the 33-year old son of Craig Stadler, who won 13 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1982 Masters. As a senior, the Walrus has added 9 Champions Tour wins to his golfing resume. His son was playing in his 239th PGA Tour event this weekend. On Sunday afternoon, after years of grinding he finally recorded his maiden victory. With the win he receives an invitation to this year’s Masters, where Craig and Kevin will become the first father and son to play together in the season’s opening major. Like the football game that follows, the Phoenix Open seems to be all about showmanship. But in the end, golf fans at the PGA Tour’s frat party tournament were treated to a family-friendly finish worthy of the Hallmark Channel.

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