In COVID era, players adjusting to ‘weird’ Phoenix Open with limited fans

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Players are used to hearing the roar of the crowd as they walk onto 16. It will have a different vibe this year. (Photo by Marlee Smith/Cronkite News)

The 16th hole has a very different feel this year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Its “coliseum” environment has been constructed again but it won’t seat 16,000 people like it has in the past. (Photo by Marlee Smith/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is not just any par-3. The 16th hole is three stories high. The 16th hole is a coliseum, built to hold tens of thousands of crazy, screaming fans. The 16th hole is where the hordes would line up at the break of dawn and turn one of the PGA’s biggest tournaments into a delirious mosh pit.

In 2019, the Phoenix Open at the Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale hosted a record-breaking 719,179 fans during the week. On the day of the third round, the tournament hosted 216,818 fans, the most-ever in a single day. Besides the ideal winter weather and fast greens, the Phoenix Open is known around the world for its boisterous crowds, especially at its unique 16th hole.

Now due to the coronavirus pandemic, the crowds this year are decidedly trimmed down. The max capacity of this year’s tournament tops at 5,000 fans and the players feel their absence more than anybody else. The event, while greatly reduced in spectators, is one of the few stops on the PGA Tour to allow fans.

“It’s weird to not see everybody on the course,” Webb Simpson, the defending champion, said on the eve of the tournament. “It’s weird not seeing the infrastructure for the 16th hole.”

Simpson won last year’s Phoenix Open with 17 strokes under par, defeating Tony Finau in the playoff. That win allowed Simpson to crack the top 10 world ranking. His affinity for the Valley’s notorious golf fans runs deep.

“We’re going to realize what we’re missing, and so we’re going to hopefully be back to normal next year, I hope, because this tournament is kind of in a league of its own when it comes to the energy and the loudness,” Simpson said.

“It’s fun to feel that kind of nervous energy walking through the tunnel and knowing you’re about to enter into an environment that we’ll never have again for the rest of the year. It will definitely be missed. But maybe a little stress-free this year compared to every other year.”

Simpson said he will miss the fan interaction tremendously, even the banter with fans who last year tried to distract him from winning the title.

“On the Friday of the tournament, there were some fans who were betting against me and talking some smack,” Simpson said. “Every time I made a put, I would look at them and laugh at their reaction because they were mad I made it in.”

Justin Thomas said the Phoenix Open’s severely toned-down atmosphere is acute.

“Not being able to see the grandstands from afar is completely weird,” he said.

Thomas comes in with added scrutiny because of the anti-gay slur he said in January at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii.

“It’s been a huge distraction for me,” Thomas said. “Biggest thing I learned is that I made a mistake. I have the opportunity to grow from it.”

So the lack of fans can either make or break Thomas’ performance in the tournament.

On Wednesday, Bubba Watson busted out a pink Ping driver on the famed 16th hole, to the delight of a smattering of fans. Cardboard cutouts of spectators smiled woodenly at Watson’s showmanship.

One golfer who may not be too worried about the lack of fans is Arizona State golf alumni, Jon Rahm. Even though tournament organizers said they plan to allow only 5,000 fans per day, along with instituting safety procedures such as mandatory temperature checks and socially distanced seating, Rahm said the familiar turf could be an advantage.

“It’s a home event for me, I get to sleep in my own bed,” Rahm said. “I got my first cut made here (at the Phoenix Open) on PGA Tour and the whole Sun Devil vibe and the familiarity with everything.”

Rahm wants to use the limited amount of fan attendance to his advantage to hopefully win his first start this PGA Tour season.

“I’m happy that we have at least 5,000 fans a day, it makes a huge difference,” Rahm said this week. “Seeing the smile on the little kids and fans, it was really fun out there.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Marco Peralta expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Peralta reports for Cronkite Sports and KSUN Spanish radio.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Marlee Smith expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in organizational leadership. Smith is the social media coordinator for ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.