First-timers experience unknown atmosphere of 16th hole at WM Phoenix Open

By Everett Munez
Medill Reports

As a growing crowd waited for its first victim on the 16th hole, Arizona State alum Kevin Yu walked into the colosseum. A loud cheer erupted for the first-time player at the WM Phoenix Open, but Yu had to hit a great shot to keep that cheering from turning into jeering.

The 16th hole at the Phoenix Open presents a challenge unlike any other in the sport.  Typically quiet and reserved golf fans are replaced by rowdy, fun-loving maniacs. A good shot inside the stadium is met with booming cheers. A bad shot that misses the green is met with jeering boos. A great shot is sometimes met with a shower of beer that rains down from the stands onto the course. 

For a first-time player at this tournament, this hole can be intimidating. Would Yu be the crowd’s first victim? Or would he be its first hero?

Kevin Yu hits his shot on 16 on Thursday. (Everett Munez/MEDILL)

“No matter what the situation, no matter the day or where he stands, if he’s playing well or not well, if it’s the final putt or the first putt, he will look the exact same,” said Matt Thurmond, Yu’s coach at ASU and caddie during the 2020 U.S. Open. “He’s not by nature a showman.”

With the pressure on in Thursday’s rain-interrupted first round, Yu stepped up to the ball and hit an iron to just under 14 feet from the hole. The crowd erupted with applause and “Yuuuuuuuu” chants. True to Thurmond’s word, Yu merely acknowledged the crowd with a brief wave.

Spiderman costumes are just the tip of the iceberg on the 16th hole. (Everett Munez/MEDILL)

“You have to maintain your focus and try to not think about all the noises and people talking all that stuff,” Yu said.

On the green, something changed. As Yu coolly rolled his birdie putt toward the hole, the crowd learned forward in their seats in anticipation. When the putt dropped in, Yu let loose a massive fist pump that would have made Tiger Woods proud. The “Yu” chants started again, this time with greater intensity. Yu couldn’t help but smile.

Kevin Yu smiles up at fans as he exits the stadium on Thursday. (Everett Munez/MEDILL)

For a hole, Yu had turned into a showman. 

Out of 28 first-time players in the tournament, Yu had one of the six birdies on the 16th. Seventeen players parred the hole, and five made bogey. Of the 132 players in the field, there were 16 total bogeys on the 16th. This means first-timers accounted for 31% of the bogeys. 

These players, of course, did not receive the same warm reception as Yu. Even getting it in the hole in three didn’t mean players were safe from the fans’ wrath. Tyson Alexander, another first-time player at the Phoenix Open, was in the same group as Yu. 

“It was my first time here, and I was really looking forward to (the 16th hole),” Alexander said.

Alexander’s tee shot landed toward the middle of the green, but the ball rolled back to more than 22 feet from the hole and the boo birds were unleashed for the first time. More than that, the crowd taunted him with “One of us” chants when he left his lag putt short. Still, Alexander said he enjoyed the experience.

“It’s fun,” he said. “The fans are super into it, and they come up with some creative stuff to say.” 

While the nerves may be higher for some first-timers than for more experienced golfers, they certainly still exist even for the best golfers in the world. Justin Thomas, the No.19 golfer in the world, has played this event nine times. He has four top-10 finishes, with his best finish being third in 2019. Despite this, the 16th still presents unique challenges, he said.

“It’s a great test for where you are at and how you handle nerves,” Thomas said. “But (the pressure) doesn’t just go away, or at least it hasn’t for me.” 

The first time Thomas played the 16th in the tournament, he hit the green with his tee shot and two-putted for par. Not quite electrifying, but good enough to escape the boo birds.

“The last thing you want to do when you have 20,000 drunk people yelling at you,” Thomas said, “is to run it 4 feet past.”

Everett Munez is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.