‘The sport needs it’: Fans, golfers embrace return to normalcy during Phoenix Open’s first round

Fans were thrilled to be back at a WM Phoenix Open that more resembles the tournament in the pre-COVID-19 era. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

The views from the 16th hole at the WM Phoenix Open in Scottsdale on Thursday suggest it will be a busy weekend. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

Fans walk between holes at the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. This was the first time fans were welcomed back in full capacity since 2020. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

Arizona State golfer Preston Summerhays sips water during Thursday’s round. The amateur receiving an invitation to the PGA Tour event. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – The WM Phoenix Open is regularly the highest attended tournament on the PGA Tour. In 2020, right before the outbreak of COVID-19, it drew more than 700,000 fans across five days. In 2018, the last year daily attendance stats were released, the tournament had over 215,000 spectators on Saturday alone.

The next year, however, the tournament limited capacity to just 5,000 fans per day to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. For the first time, “The People’s Open” hardly had any people.

With all restrictions lifted for this year’s events, fans are flooding in. And a sense of gratefulness has swept over TPC Scottsdale.

“The first six months playing on tour without any fans felt so weird, it felt like we were back in an old junior tournament again and no one is supporting you,” said Louis Oosthuizen, the 12th ranked golfer in the world. “I think everyone is hungry and thirsty to be at any sporting event and have fun and watch some golf. It’s really great to have the fans back.”

In many ways, the Phoenix Open built its reputation on fan support. The tournament has become infamous for its large and rowdy crowds, who make playing at TPC Scottsdale unlike any other stop on the tour.

The par-3 16th hole is known as the loudest hole in golf, with grandstands circling the hole that fit up to 17,000 fans. Many have likened it to a coliseum, not only in stature but also because of the crowd’s roars when a good shot is hit. Not to be outdone by the cascade of boos when the green is missed.

It’s an experience unique in golf, and last year was the first time many golfers have gone without it.

Fans seemed happy to be back as well, streaming through the gates in what will likely be record numbers.

Robert Streb surveys his putt on 16 at the WM Phoenix Open in Scottsdale on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. (Photo by Susan Wong /Cronkite News)

“We don’t keep track of the attendance, but it certainly feels like a Thursday,” said tournament chairman Michael Golding after Wednesday’s Pro-Am, which is played every Waste Management Phoenix Open the day before competition starts.

Spectators made up for last year’s lack of noise with roars from the 16th hole that could be heard around the course.

“They cheer you when you hit a good one, and they boo you when you hit a bad one, which is what you deserve,” four-time major winner Brooks Koepka said. “I always love the fans out here. I like playing in front of a lot of people.”

Many golfers take advantage of the chance to interact with fans on 16, whether it’s throwing their ball up into the stands, or chirping back and forth with booing and less-than-sober fans. This is part of the reason that the 16th hole attracts so many people.

“That was my favorite part of the whole day. I said to (my friends), next time I will probably go there and spend the whole day there,” spectator Callum Mendoza said. “The stadium was packed, everyone is getting loud, it was a really great time. You could feel the energy.”

What feels like energy to the fans translates to pressure for the golfers. No other spot on the tour features golfers walking into a tunnel and emerging out of the other side to an ocean of 15,000 screaming fans, ready to let them hear if they make a mistake.

Last year’s runner-up and the leader for much of Day One, K.H. Lee, noted the immense pressure that comes with the final three holes at TPC Scottsdale, adding that sometimes the pressure makes for better golf, which has certainly been the case for Lee.

Although some have been critical of the Phoenix Open’s electric atmosphere, the mood Thursday was clearly upbeat.

“The players need it, the sport needs it, it really helps get the community going,” fan Bill Chandler said. “It’s a great thing.”

Harrison Campbell HAIR-i-son CAM-bull
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Harrison Campbell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media studies. Campbell has interned as a reporter at O’Rourke Media Group and worked as the lead boxing reporter at Fight Club.

Susan Wong soo-zin wah-ong (she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Susan Wong expects to graduate in May 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Wong, who earned a bachelor’s in sports journalism in May 2022, is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics.