Sweet 16 Is an Experience You Can’t Miss at the Phoenix Open on the PG…

It’s been likened to a frat party. It’s been called the loudest hole in golf. Every year, TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole transforms from a quiet and unassuming 160 yard direct approach par 3, into the PGA Tour’s bad boy/black sheep/rock star hole during the Waste Management Phoenix Open. There isn’t anything quite like “Sweet 16” anywhere else on the PGA Tour, and it has to be experienced to be believed.

Part intimidating, part infuriating and part intoxicating, the allure and myth of the 16th can’t be avoided. It is surrounded by grandstands and skyboxes, with thorough lines of people waiting to go into its inner confines, where up to 20,000 people surround the hole from tee to green. It resembles a small baseball stadium dropped into the middle of a golf course. Perhaps the stadium feel is why the crowd is known to include in “the wave” now and then. Yes, we are talking about a PGA Tour event, and the wave is the least surprising activity at Sweet 16.

You can walk around it and not see the green or the tee boxes, but there is a rumbling noise emanating from within that rises to roars, jeers, chants and wild exuberance every few moments. There is a small identify you can catch a view of the green from the outside, but you will be in a swarm of humanity crowding the area and you’re better off checking Twitter to see what’s happening inside; don’t worry, people will be tweeting about it. Of course, you could shell out some serious dough for skybox entry, or use upwards of two hours waiting in line for the free grandstand seating. Either approach should be on your bucket list.

This is a Happy Gilmore kind of joint. Players who appear from the tunnel with a cult of personality streaming behind them tend to absorb the energy that crackles from the stands. Bubba Watson tossed Oakley ski glasses to the crowd on Friday. Padraig Harrington kicked a football into the stands the day before Super Bowl XLVII, showing his timing is impeccable. Caddies race onto the hole, this year falling down as they hit the border, to the glee of the crowd. Russell Henley already reached out on Twitter: “Dear Fans on #16, I love you, how bout gettin real real loud today? #thankyou.” Ian Poulter riled the crowd up, pushing them to make more and more noise, which they were more than willing to do, and proceeded to tag a great shot to a backbeat of wild euphoric yelling. On day 4, James Hahn completely brought the house down with a stirring Gagnam Style celebration over the hole after he birdied.

Phil Mickelson just brings himself, and that’s enough. Local legend Lefty doesn’t need to do anything fancy to win over the crowd. They love him. already before he is visible, the chants of “ASU, ASU” ring the hole. Phil attended Arizona State University, and the current student body is well represented in Sweet 16’s gallery, doing their best to keep the ASU party school reputation alive. Phil puts on a show, ordinarily putting the ball on the green to the delight of the crowd. On day three of his dominating performance in the 2013 Waste Management Phoenix Open, he came a foot away from acing the hole and the crowd exploded.

But not everyone is a fan of Sweet 16. If you have the misfortune of missing the green get ready for the boos, the kind you’d hear if you missed a Super Bowl game winning kick. They already rained boos on Olympic gold medal collector Michael Phelps in the pro-am leading up to the event, just because his ball missed the green and he didn’t retrieve in addition as the crowd wanted. And he’s just an amateur. Golf traditionalists abhor the hole, rolling their eyes at juvenile chants aimed at women in the crowd, golfer’s personal lives and other very non-traditional behavior that is now the norm (and the tradition) at 16.

Sweet 16 didn’t use to be enclosed. Fifteen years ago, you could cram up against the green and the area was open with a beautiful view of the mountains behind, save for the grandstands behind the tee box where the wildest chanting and air was centered. In 1997, Tiger Woods dropped a hole in one on 16 and the place simply erupted. Cups of alcohol that had been pouring into fans’ mouths started splashing down onto the tee box, Tiger pumped his fist and raised the roof, fans lost their minds and the legend of the hole grew.

It was rowdy back then, but it was highly easy to reach. In 2008, it became fully enclosed and the raucous air ingrained in the culture of the hole was hidden from general view. It became a badge of honor to get inside, and people are more than willing to wait hours to go into this counter-culture golf Mecca. But it’s also not as Wild West as it used to be, either. Security is much improved, and alcohol vendors are quick to pull the plug on anyone who is demonstrably intoxicated, keeping possible issues to a minimum. The chants are also less creative, intrusive and offensive than they once were, though “Long Dong” rang out this year when Dong Hwan Lee hit the tee box.

The mystique of the hole seems to be changing in another important way in addition. More and more players are using the rare opportunity to pepper the crowd with products, advertising messages and generally clown around. There’s a new backlash among 16th hole fans who see the commercialization of the experience as breaking with tradition. The irony is palpable, but it is hard to argue that many players have become fully engaged with the fans in the stands on many levels, including raising sponsor visibility. Whether that’s a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder.

On day 3 of the Open, I noticed some old-school Sweet 16 aura starting to appear at the 15 tee box, and 17 and 18 were much more rowdy than I remember in addition. This creates a different vibe for all four of the closing holes, a different kind of pressure-packed experience that specialized golfers aren’t used to playing in, and made Phil’s feat of putting up 4 straight birdies on those holes to close day 3 all the more impressive. As “ASU” chants filled the air on 18 and Phil took a smiling 6 stroke rule, I felt like I was being transported back to when Sweet 16 was open air – raw, wild and in complete view of everyone, and nothing was being tossed into the crowd but memories.

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