SCOTTSDALE — On Friday and Saturday of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Mike Leonard is one of the first to arrive at the course, weaving his way around the fairways and greens in an all-out sprint to secure one of the most coveted spots of the tournament:
Front row at the 16th hole.
That location at the TPC has had its share of changes and modifications but one of the few constants has been the presence of the cheering and jeering Minnesota fanbase. Since 2000, anyone can find these Minnesotans on the left-side of the general admission seats and more specifically they can find the group’s ringleader, Leonard.
“I watched that hole on TV,” Leonard, 33, said. “When I saw Tiger hit his hole-in-one (in 1997) it was kind of one of those life vow things, like wow this would be a lot of fun to go to.”
Leonard’s brother Dave enrolled at Arizona State University in the late 1990s and attended his first Phoenix Open in 1999. After Dave told Mike about the fun atmosphere, Mike was sold and went to his first open the following year.
“So it pretty much became a tradition since then,” Leonard said.
Thanks to his dedication to interacting with the golfers in the event, he and his pack have become just another characteristic of the short par 3.
Leonard isn’t a traditional fan of golf. He is more a mix of golf advocate and life of the party.
His role at the open entails arriving at the course before the sun rises, consuming adult beverages and sharing his popular fact sheet about players in the tournament.
“I made the initial one in 2004 when I was in college,” Leonard said of the fact sheets. “The reason I started doing it is because when they used to come through the tunnel, we used to chant at guys who went to ASU or Florida, kind of the big-name guys.”
Leonard then came up with the idea to do that for every golfer who passed through the 16th hole.
The objective was to find factual information on each player, such as what high school and college he attended, and his involvement in any embarrassing public scandal. Often, the name of a girlfriend or wife is shouted from the stands.
Nothing is off limits.
“I think what’s most important is the players have a respect for what we’re doing here, in large part to what Mike does,” said Steve Martin, a fellow Minnesotan and Mike’s friend. “We’re not just yelling ignorant statements at these guys. It’s educated commentary about these players, their caddies, their wives, where they went to high school. They seem to really enjoy it.”
The players definitely appreciate the fans’ gamesmanship.
On Friday, Mike and his group were given hats from Patrick Reed and drawstring bags from Bubba Watson filled with balls, tees and other golf tools while walking from the tee box to the green.
But Leonard’s presence at the 16th hole has given him more than good times and goodie bags – it’s also let him share special moments with his family and friends.
“I was not quite prepared for the party atmosphere the first year,” said Bev Leonard, the mother of Mike and Dave. “From a family perspective, these two guys don’t get to spend very much time together. So this is such a bonding time together as brothers, and as a mom, that has been a joy.”
Bev has attended the Phoenix Open for more than five years and has enjoyed watching the influence Mike has brought to the hole for the past 17.
Leonard believes his experiences are unique in the professional sports world.
It does, however, raise a question: How much longer?
“I thought about giving it up about 10 years ago, but I kind of have a hard time giving up on things,” Leonard said. “I’d would love to see a group of 25-year-olds or younger that come in and kind of do what we do.”