Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2016

Matsuyama Proves Ringmaster Of Golf’s Annual Circus

A NOTE TO READERS: This week On Sports and Life began its seventh year. My deepest appreciation to all of you for your continued support.

Professional golf is a year-round enterprise. The PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule began in mid-October of last year and will conclude with the final round of the Tour Championship on the last Sunday of September. The European Tour’s calendar also runs through all twelve months with events scattered across three continents. The schedules for the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour are not as full, but those tours too are adding more tournaments. Throw in regional tours in Asia and Australia as well as the various developmental and senior tours, and the Golf Channel will never lack for something to cover.

But wherever they’re played most events look fairly similar. The nature of the golf course and the size of the purse may change but the basic structure remains constant. Crowds range from sparse to robust, but the atmosphere is almost always polite and restrained. The men’s and women’s majors offer a higher level of drama because of their importance; which can sometimes lead to louder roars. The emergence of several young stars on the PGA Tour has brought out a new wave of equally young fans, both developments that are good for the game. Those new fans have ramped up the volume at weekly tour stops, but even they respect the “Quiet Please” signs raised by volunteer marshals whenever a player gets ready to hit.

Then there is the Phoenix Open. First played in 1932, it is one of the oldest stops on the PGA Tour, and for much of its history was conducted in an atmosphere no different from any other weekly Tour stop. Run almost since its inception by the Thunderbirds, a local civic organization, the Phoenix Open has been one of the Tour’s most successful tournaments in terms of raising money for local charities.

The event’s success has reached new heights in recent years as organizers recognized the unique advantages of the tournament’s location. The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale is a sprawling links built with spectators in mind, as are all the courses in the PGA Tour operated Tournament Players Club chain. The spacious layout can easily accommodate huge crowds, and the adjacent Club Course offers additional room for everything from corporate entertaining to logistical staging areas. With the support of Waste Management, the tournament’s corporate sponsor, the Thunderbirds decided to turn their event into a four-day festival of freely flowing beer with massive numbers of fans.

The result is a stop utterly unique on professional golf’s calendar. Dubbed the Greatest Show on Grass, the 2015 event set an attendance record with 564,368 fans pouring through the gates. Many early arrivals head directly for the par-3 16th hole, part of a four hole finishing stretch that is always jammed with spectators, who often see dramatic turns in the tournament itself. The 16th can be stretched to just over 200 yards, but for the pros it’s a straightforward short hole with bunkers to the left of the green and collection areas to the right and behind the elevated putting surface.

For Phoenix Open week this straightforward par-3 is turned into the one and only site of arena golf. From tee to green the hole is entirely surrounded by multilevel grandstands. Players come through a tunnel from the 15th green and are met by a deafening wall of sound in the enclosed space. Pleas from the Thunderbird in charge of the hole for quiet are met with derision, especially later in the day as fans become more lubricated. Players hit their tee shots in the equivalent of a dull roar that explodes into a wall of sound close to 100 decibel, the equivalent of a nearby jackhammer, if a ball lands close to the pin. The catcalls and boos that rain down on the poor golfer who hits an errant ball can be nearly as loud. About the only feature the 16th lacks is fans actively trying to distract players while they putt, like so many kids in the student section behind the baskets at college basketball games.

The carnival atmosphere isn’t limited to just one golf hole however. This year’s tournament saw a new one-day attendance record set on Saturday, when more than 200,000 fans walked the grounds; a number that many popular PGA Tour stops would be happy to have over the course of an entire week. Going into Sunday’s final round attendance at the 2016 Phoenix Open was only about 10,000 short of last year’s record, so it’s virtually certain that the tournament will have attracted more than 600,000 fans for the first time once all the numbers have been tallied.

With that many people on site the party is largely non-stop. The 17th is a drivable par-4, and fans there are only slightly less raucous than those who camp out in the 16th hole arena. The dogleg par-4 closing hole is lined with hospitality tents as well as a large grandstand behind the green and fans sitting shoulder to shoulder on a hillside, all offering loud and continuous support to their favorite players. It is really only out on the farthest reaches of the golf course, along the par-4 5th hole on the front nine and par-5 13th hole on the back, that the atmosphere resemble that of most tournaments.

There are pros who hate this one week circus and skip the event. Many more grin and bear it, recognizing that while the atmosphere may not be ideal in which to ply their trade, there is obvious value in having a golf tournament that attracts more than half a million spectators. And then there are those who thrive in the bedlam and play to the crowd.

Rickie Fowler, the former BMX bike racer, surely falls into the latter group. On Sunday he began tied with Hideki Matsuyama and three strokes behind 54-hole leader Danny Lee. Lee stumbled early and spent the rest of the round trying to catch up. Standing on the 17th tee Fowler had a two-stroke lead over Matsuyama. Perhaps fueled by the crowd, or his daredevil biking days, he hit driver on the short par-4, and his tee shot ran through the green and into the water hazard behind it. Matsuyama laid up with a 3-wood and made birdie. When Fowler bogeyed the two were tied. They remained that way through the final hole of regulation and three holes of sudden death, until they returned to the 17th. This time Fowler pulled his tee shot left into the hazard short of the green, gifting Matsuyama his second PGA Tour title.

It was a disappointing ending for the strongly pro-Fowler crowd, and unexpected given his recent success. Since proving his mettle with a win at The Players last May, Fowler has won twice on the European Tour and outdueled Henrik Stenson at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston last September. He sits fourth in the world rankings and would have been nipping at Jason Day’s heels for the third spot had he won Sunday. But in the end the Phoenix Open turned out to be like every other golf tournament. It wasn’t about the atmosphere or the theatrics, it was about who hit the best shots.

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