Fans gravitate to storied 16th hole at WM Phoenix Open

Patrick Rodgers, Matt Wallace and Greyson Sigg prepare to putt on the 16th green while the fans cheer. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)

By Kikue Higuchi
Medill Reports

The WM Phoenix Open tournament feels more like a huge festival than a serious golf tournament with a $20 million purse, including a cool $3.6 million check for the champ.

Saturday is historically the most popular day to attend the tournament with the 16th hole — a short par-3 with a legacy of holes-in-one — at the epicenter of the party. This year was no exception for the best-attended PGA tour event. Though the tournament stopped releasing official attendance numbers in 2018, when a record 216,818 fans passed through the gates for that year’s third round, organizers announced sellouts on both Friday and Saturday this year.

After walking through the turnstiles, fans find themselves on the 18th green. But usually, they quickly walk around the action. Though there’s champion golf to watch as soon as you enter the event, many don’t travel to TPC Scottsdale for love of the sport. And the event is worth a trip just to feast on the festive, quirky costumes. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


The relaxed nature of the tournament generally leads to some interesting fashion choices. The formal golf wear usually found at PGA Tour events is thrown out the window and fans can show up like this foursome: in matching floral kimonos. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


Once they pass the 18th hole, crowds are met by the designated fan zone, where food and beer stands abound. Some may stop for a bite or a drink, but most continue on toward the most popular hole of the tournament, the 16th. The hole is also known as “the Coliseum” because it is surrounded on all sides by towering grandstands. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


However, the venue only seats 16,000-20,000 fans, so thousands more wait in line hoping to find a seat at some point in the day, like these Minnesota Vikings fans. Josh Aallen, on the far left, from Manitoba, Canada, said this is his 12th year wearing his Vikings regalia to this event. “We have a lot of sadness and hope, and we can’t go to the Super Bowl, so we pretend like we’re at the Super Bowl,” Aallen said about why he keeps coming back to the Phoenix Open. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


Even the staff patrolling the tournament is unique. The Thunderbirds, a special events committee formed by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in 1937, organize the yearly event. Here, Dan Fox, a life member of the Thunderbirds, can be seen standing by the media entrance of the 16th hole in his uniform. All Thunderbirds wear pendants and belts crafted by the nearby Navajo nation. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


Once inside the 16th hole, fans scream, shout and finally get around to watching some golf. Here, Patrick Rodgers, Matt Wallace and Greyson Sigg prepare to putt while the lucky fans who made it into the grandstands cheer. When asked about the 16th hole after his third round on Saturday, four-time PGA Tour winner Sam Burns said, “It’s a great atmosphere. The fans are obviously incredible. It’s a hole that I always look forward to.” (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


But many fans get derailed on their way to the 16th hole, like these two groups posing for a photo together beside the 10th hole fairway, which is just behind the grandstands. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


This group of friends from the suburbs surrounding Phoenix dressed in matching “Where’s Waldo?” outfits after being inspired by a video they saw of the 2022 tournament. “We saw a video of (people) running in (to the tournament), and there were like 15 Waldos,” said Mitchell Barnes, 24, second from left. “Needless to say, we were inspired.” (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


Some give up on getting to the 16th hole entirely, like this group dressed in matching banana suits. Cole, on the far right, said they didn’t have the patience to wait in line for the 16th hole, but “the plan was to go bananas” anyways. (Kikue Higuchi/Medill)


Kikue Higuchi is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @kychiguchi.