He is usually impervious to the chaos that surrounds him, but every man has his breaking point and Jordan Spieth reached his Sunday morning, his approach barely airborne at the 18th at TPC Scottsdale as he tossed his iron into the sky and extended his right hand at the gallery, pointing in the vicinity where a scream emitted during his backswing. No matter that Spieth’s shot finished 15 feet from the pin; he could no longer abide the circus, shaking his head and mouthing “What the f***,” a question he and many in the sport want answered.
Because Spieth was not alone in his displeasure at last week's WM Phoenix Open. Cameras caught Billy Horschel and Zach Johnson confronting spectators. Ben An called it a “s***show” on social media. There was also a viral video of fans fighting, an individual fell from the stands and Saturday’s atmosphere was so out of control that the gates were eventually closed and alcohol sales were cut off. Golf’s biggest party went too hard and is now battling the type of hangover that asks if an intervention is needed.
“This tournament has been inappropriate and crossed the line since I’ve been on tour and this is my 21st year,” Johnson told reporters on Sunday. “I don’t know what the line is, but you have people falling out of the rafters, you have fights in the stands. … It’s to the point where now, how do you reel it in? Because it’s taken on a life of its own. I think [tournament organizers] probably need to do something about it. I’m assuming they’re ashamed. Because at some point, somebody’s either gonna really, really get hurt or worse.”
I'm never doing that again. Anyone who’s battled a hangover has said a variation of that the morning after, and it appears a few players are thinking the same of playing in this now 92-year-old PGA Tour event. “It’s been talked about amongst players about, if this would continue to escalate over the next few years, you could see players not want to come here,” Horschel said on Sunday evening. “And that’s an unfortunate situation.”
But that never-again refrain after hangovers—spoiler alert—is almost always broken, and that sentiment applies here. No, we’re not advocating for kegs on every tee box or fight clubs underneath the stands. (Although, let’s be honest, there would be an audience for that.) Clearly this weekend crossed a line from a crowd-control standpoint, and what happened at the gates cannot happen again. It’s also a relatively easy fix: Fewer allotted tickets, more staffing at the entrances. Curbing alcohol sales may be a bit tougher, yet alcoholic beverages are present at almost every major sporting event in this country. Why it’s a recurring factor at TPC Scottsdale—whereas it rarely impacts the on-the-field proceedings at other competitions—is the biggest project the tournament needs to solve from now until next year.
Conversely, was this year really that different? Weather delays did not help, which not only made fans restless but also presented some logistical issues on the grounds. Nor does the fact that it’s 2024 and everyone has a camera in their pockets, and the scenes that can now be amplified to the rest of the world are scenes that have been inherent to the Phoenix Open for some time. The broadcast is guilty on this front too; having analysts boo players for missing the 16th green—while fun—doesn't discourage that behavior from fans, either.
Fans are seen on the 16th green during the second round of last week's WM Phoenix Open.
This isn’t to shame or belittle those who find what happened over-the-line; it’s just they are seeing the worst of something they already found repulsive. And maybe players' expectations need to be adjusted here as well. Again, not to vouch for fans yelling obscenities at players. In that same breath, there should be an understanding that things will be loose in Scottsdale, that impromptu yells in the middle of backswings are to be expected. You don’t go to a rock concert and ask the band to turn the volume down.
This is the Phoenix Open’s identity, for better or worse. Often it’s for the better. One of the current problems with the professional game is a lack of variety; the golf watched one week looks mostly like the golf played the week before that will look like the golf coming the week after. What is seen and heard at TPC Scottsdale is a refreshing departure. There’s a frenetic energy on the grounds that every other golf tournament tries to replicate yet can’t. It’s made a middle-of-February event matter, not due to money on the line or signature status but because the people outside the ropes have deemed it so. Professional golf has done enough over the past few years to the common fan; it does not need to water down the People’s Open to its list of transgressions.
It’s also an event that breaks the golf stereotype. The crowd is younger and more working class, and draws in non-golf fans. It feels like a big-time sporting event, which is an environment, outside of majors, that is hard to achieve. These are the very things the sport has desperately craved since … well, forever. Yes, many fans are not there for the golf. They are there to be seen; they are there to party. The same could be said for the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby and the Daytona 500. The tournament is not for everyone, but that’s the point.
It should be noted the tournament and tour have taken past measures when it comes to Scottsdale rowdiness, banning caddie races on the 16th hole due to safety measures. Perhaps a little patience, if not earned, should be given. In sober reflection, overreacting to what happened this weekend would be to ruin the very thing that gives this tournament meaning. The Phoenix Open needs to be tamed, but you can only subdue so much before it ends the party.