‘Sky’s the limit’: Phoenix Open happy to keep growing

PHOENIX – The year was 1997, and Tiger Woods, fresh out of Stanford, was brand new to the PGA Tour.

Woods stepped up to the raucous 16th tee wearing a navy blue Nike hat and oversize polo shirt that probably would be considered drab by today’s fashion standards.

What he did next became a legendary moment not just for Woods, who has a book full of them, but for the Waste Management Phoenix Open: He hit a hole-in-one on the 3-par 16th.

The moment is a marker for how much the tournament, which kicks off Thursday at TPC Scottsdale, has grown.

In ’97, fans camped out on a berm to watch the young star. Now, there is no grass seating on 16, and it’s the only hole on the tour that is enclosed in a stadium setting.

On that Saturday, 121,500 fans attended the tournament. Last year, 204,906 were there on the event’s third day.

“It just happened organically,” 2018 Phoenix Open chairman Carlos Sugich said.

The tournament began in 1932, at the Phoenix Country Club. In ’39, a young Byron Nelson won the $700 first-place prize. By 1997, the total purse was $1.5 million. This year, it’s $6.9 million.

But nothing reflects the growth of this event more than the 16th hole.

“We had a lot of a college kids out there from ASU and UofA and it started to grow and grow and every year people would gather around 16,” Sugich said. “That’s when we decided … let’s build something, and that’s how we ended up building the stadium.”

The stadium holds 16,000 people, which is more than any basketball arena in the Pac-12.

The Open put $389 million into Arizona’s economy last year and attracted 99,887 non-Arizona residents, according to a study by Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business and ASU’s L. William Seidman Research Institute.

“Our tournament has become a bucket list for fans out there all over the country that want to come out and enjoy the beautiful weather we normally have, and you have a good time,” Sugich said.

With the tournament’s growth, the Thunderbirds, a charitable organization that helps organize the Open, make enhancing the fan experience a priority.

This year, the Thunderbirds doubled the size of “El Rancho” on the 12th hole where fans can enjoy Mexican food and play games. The stands on 16 now extend out to 17 and 18, and a craft-beer house was added at the 7th hole.

Editor’s note:

A previous version of this story on the growth of the Waste Management Phoenix Open had an incorrect figure for the amount of non-Arizona residents attending the tournament last year. According to a study by Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business and ASU’s L. William Seidman Research Institute, 99,887 attended the event. The story has been updated to reflect the correct information. Clients who used earlier versions are asked to run the correction that can be found here.

On Saturday morning, when fans line up about 4 a.m. to pour through the gates at 7 a.m. for 16, they’ll be greeted by a DJ and prize giveaways along with a breakfast outside the gate.

The rush “is something that we love because that shows how great our fans are,” Sugich said.

The Thunderbirds donate the funds to hundreds of local charities. This, too, reflects the Open’s growth.

“Since we started putting together the tournament, we donated more than $122 million, but we have donated more than $56 million over the past eight or nine years,” Sugich said.

But no moment will be more identified with this tournament than Wood’s hole-in-one.

“Everyone stood up … then all the Bud Light, the beer cozies came showering down,” said John Vasseur, a freelance producer and writer who was sitting near the tee box at the time. “(It) covered the whole tee box and everyone is just going crazy.”

The beer shower continued as Woods walked down the fairway to grab the ball he’d just sunk.

It was one of many unique moments that have helped this tournament grow.

“I don’t know how it keeps getting bigger and every year. I think, ‘Well, there is nothing you can do to add to this,’ but every year they (the Thunderbirds) do,” Vasseur said.

How much more can the weekend grow? Sugich doesn’t see an end any time soon.

“As long as we have and do a good job making sure everyone has a good time and the community keeps supporting this tournament, I think the sky’s the limit.”

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