January 21, 2008

Bring In The Noise

The loudest place in Arizona on Super Bowl weekend might just be No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale

Pandemonium (and calls for balls) is the norm at the the highly interactive par-3 16th.

Pandemonium (and calls for balls) is the norm at the the highly interactive par-3 16th.

Players can't miss the large sign above the tunnel taking them through the stands onto the 16th tee at TPC Scottsdale during the FBR Open. It reads: WELCOME TO THE MOST EXCITING HOLE IN GOLF -- ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING.

Tour veterans know that to be an egregious understatement.

The 16th hole may come late in the round, but it gets into their heads much earlier. "You know it's coming all day long," says Bart Bryant. "You're just hoping you don't miss the green or miss a putt there, because that crowd's tough."

The seemingly straightforward par 3, listed at a mere 162 yards, is the most notorious, wildest party hole on the PGA Tour. It also can be the most fun. At peak times it is surrounded by 15,000 excitable fans who consider themselves part of the show -- which they assuredly are.

They come in all shapes and ages, and they come in full-throated enthusiasm requiring frequent lubrication from busy concession stations. A long row of portable toilets lines the access road above the hole.

If the 16th was an entertainer, it would be the bumptious Bill Murray. The wacky comedian chipped in for birdie there one year during the pro-am and was so nonplussed he nearly forgot to go crazy.

The 16th is modern sport's answer to the Roman Colosseum with its thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down spectacles. It is the tour's answer to television's reality shows. Pandemonium in the desert. It inspired a live online blog before blogs became blogs.

The attention lavished on the hole and the good-times atmosphere of the most massively attended tournament distracts from the appeal of the closing holes at TPC Scottsdale. The 15th through 18th comprise one of the most exciting and testing finishes anywhere: the 15th, a sometimes reachable par 5; the 16th, a short hole unto itself; the 17th, a drivable par 4; and the 18th, a strong 4 with water on the left and heavy bunkering on the right.

But there is no minimizing the impact of 16, surrounded stadium-style by bleachers, double-decker corporate skyboxes (worth more than $6 million to the tournament) and a crowded hillside behind the green. The leaders of the crowd involvement sit, or rather stand, next to the player entrance, a group of boisterous twentysomethings in purple Viking jerseys down from Minnesota each winter armed with tanning lotion and crib sheets about golfers' backgrounds. (After Phil Mickelson won the Masters they showed up wearing green jackets.)

They cue the chorus around them in greeting each pairing with booming versions of players' old school songs and chants, their national anthems if they hail from foreign countries, birthday songs for their offspring and, if they are Ryder Cuppers, patriotically themed support. One player says, "They dig up things you don't even know about. They get more and more clever."

For Tripp Isenhour, whose hobby is cooking, a chant was "Gourmet cook, gourmet cook …" Last year's champion, Aaron Baddeley, was surprised by a chant about his dog Brutus and the pet's dislike of brooms. If silence threatens to break out, you might hear "Go sign girl!"

When the baseball Yankees take the field at home, bleacher creatures in the close right-field stands at Yankee Stadium chant each player's name until the player raises his hand in acknowledgment. A tip of the cap or a wave is common from the golfers at 16. Bubba Watson has cultivated favor by tossing extra caps to the fans. Bets are made in the crowd on whether a player will hit the green or who will be closest to the hole.

As soon as a golfer makes contact with the ball -- and the timing is perilously close -- the crowd explodes in noise that quickly turns into raucous approval or disapproval. A good-looking shot is loudly urged to go "in the hole!" or, in the case of Latino players such as Camilo Villegas from Colombia, "en el hoyo!" A bad shot will be booed vigorously. Seasoned pros have learned the best reaction to the booing is to grin and endure it. "I deserved to be booed for hitting a terrible shot," Rocco Mediate once said. "They're a little loud and a little crazy. If you can't deal with that, don't come."

A few players, especially those who attended nearby Arizona State, are usually spared. The crowd participation took root when ASU students gathered at 16 to support past and present Sun Devils.

John Daly is another favorite -- these are his people. He says, "It's like hitting a shot in a football stadium. But it's better to have 15,000 going crazy than one."

On increasingly rare occasions the fan behavior can turn darker. Chris DiMarco was struggling on his way to winning the 2002 tournament. As he addressed a birdie putt at 16, an overserved fan hollered "Noonan!" Fans of the movie "Caddyshack" know the character's name as a reference to choking. DiMarco recomposed himself to make the putt, then pointed out the fan and had him removed. Security has been much tighter in recent years.

TPC Scottsdale 16th hole

"If you can win here, you can win everywhere," DiMarco said. "You know going into it what it will be like. If you let it get to you, it can cost you." He since has interacted amiably with the gallery.

The loudest the 16th got was when Tiger Woods, having won four tournaments in six months as a pro, made a hole-in-one with a 9-iron in 1997. The echoes are still reverberating through the dunes. Woods played again in 1999, when a man with a gun was removed from his gallery on the front nine, and in 2001, when an orange landed on a green as he was over a putt, but hasn't been back since.

Tournament chairman Tim Lewis says: "I thought with the Super Bowl here in town it might attract him this year, but it makes a lot of sense for him to play in Dubai that week financially. We have a hard time competing with that."

Mickelson and a quality field will show up, the players divided in their feelings about the energetic ambiance (in one tour survey Scottsdale ranked first for the best fans and first for the worst fans). But a surprising number profess to enjoy it as a change of pace. Others see it as the wave -- and, yes, they still do the wave at 16 -- of the future on sprawling TPC courses built with many thousands of spectators in mind. (The announced attendance for the week in Scottsdale last year was more than 500,000, presumably the most ever anywhere.)

"It's a heck of an atmosphere -- actually quite fun," Charles Howell III says of the shenanigans at 16. "It's the only week of the year you get it."

Geoff Ogilvy agrees. "It might get old if it was every week, but it's fun once or twice a year. Then 17 is the hardest tee shot because the people on 16 forget about you. They're liable to make as much noise as they can while you're hitting."

Tom Pernice Jr. says, "I think 16 is great. People for the most part are pretty courteous, and it's exciting to play in front of a lot of people."

Jason Bohn says he loves the cocktail-party mood and thinks it's good for other players to get a taste of what Tiger contends with every week. Brett Quigley says he takes one club less to offset the increased rush of adrenaline.

Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh are not known as the livest wires on the tour, but both express a fondness for the hole -- or at least a tolerance. Langer says the Ryder Cup comes close.

Singh, a two-time winner in Scottsdale, says, "I think it's great to have fans like this. I don't mind it at all -- 16 has always been pretty noisy, but as long as they are noisy after you hit the ball, it's OK with me. I'm just going to enjoy them."

Mickelson, who has jogged through the tunnel onto the tee, is also a fan. "It's an incredible feeling with all the people surrounding the hole," he says. "I love it and hope it doesn't change. The finishing holes lined with so many thousands of people giving that kind of response is a great player's experience. We don't have enough of it."

The course's co-designers, Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, assisted by local tour player Howard Twitty, built psychological challenges into the final four holes as well as physical challenges. Morrish says, "We tried to design three of the last four as swing holes that could create quick changes in the lead. Then we wanted 18 to be a really demanding par 4 that rewarded a tee shot near the water on the left. Of course, this was back when golf still required shotmaking ability and had not yet become a pitch-and-putt game."

Each hole presents options meant to depend on the outcome of the previous hole or holes. Weiskopf says of 16, "The psychology reverts to 15. If you don't birdie 15, you might get bolder with a short iron in your hands from a clean lie at 16. Or you birdie 15 and you're on a roll and fire at the pin. Then you can go for 17 with a driver or 3-wood."

The design team had no idea the simple-looking, little 16th would become "a rallying point for the unduly enthusiastic and sobriety-challenged portion of the gallery" as Morrish puts it. Weiskopf, citing the example of St. Andrews, always has included a short par 3 and drivable par 4 on his courses. "The 16th looks easy," says Weiskopf, "but if you get sloppy you can lose strokes. The wind can hurt or help, and the players tell me they're often in between clubs, a hard 9 or easy 8, a hard 8 or easy 7. You don't want to miss short or long or the ball will feed away from the green. The main difficulty is the left side of the green. The middle-back bunker on the left is about seven feet deep, and the pin is usually back left the last day." Gary McCord has observed that the bunker is deep enough to develop film in. The easy-looking hole has played to an average score a shade over par.

This year's FBR Open, the 73rd renewal of what used to be simply the Phoenix Open, will start the last Thursday in January and (likely) end Super Bowl Sunday. The climactic football game will be waged 20 miles west in Glendale. Based on past performances, the 16th hole quite possibly will provide more excitement.

TPC Scottsdale 16th hole