By Tom Gambardella, Eli Ong, Spencer Poole and Nick Rucco
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The stadium course at TPC Scottsdale is like the solar system: There’s a massive, loud, imposing structure in the center and a vast expanse in its orbit.
The giant in the center is, of course, the 16th hole, flanked by 20,000 seats and what is likely the rowdiest crowd in professional golf. Despite the massive construction surrounding the 16th, the hole itself is fairly inauspicious. It’s a relatively straight par-3 with bunkers guarding each corner of the green. At only 163 yards long, the green is reachable with a wedge for most PGA Tour golfers.
As of Saturday afternoon, it ranked the easiest hole on the course, with players averaging a whole stroke below par on it. If there weren’t 20,000 people around, the 16th might seem wholly unremarkable.
The right onlooker might wonder why this hole became the destination for thousands of rambunctious onlookers. After all, there are three other par-3s on the course, none of which play host to this kind of atmosphere.
So why didn’t those par-3s become the TPC’s temple? A group of Medill reporters went to each of them to find out.
The shockingly serene 4th hole
The tee box is close enough to hear the raucous crowd of the 16th hole, but by the time golfers get to the green of the 4th hole, it’s the silence that is deafening. The course marshals still call for silence as a golfer approaches for a shot, but the only sound they are looking to diminish is the stamping of feet from fans on the dirt path that surrounds the hole.
The green resides mere feet from a small back entrance to the course and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Hotel. The few fans who know about it swear by this entrance as the best way to get out on the course.
“We found out years ago that if you come in through the back gate, nobody else does,” said Jeri Hailey, who has been coming to the Phoenix Open for the past 16 years and was stationed with her husband in folding chairs right up against the rope of the green. “We don’t need the hubbub of the crowds, and we still get to see the players come through.”
Given its proximity to this back gate entrance, the 4th hole attracts waves of spectators more than the established stalwarts, as fans tend to tune into a few groups before moving on to explore the rest of the course.
“When the golfers are in the moment, there’s going to be a lot of emotion,” said Jeff Bradley, who has been making the trip to Phoenix from Minneapolis for the past seven years. “To be able to be right up against the green and see the ball right off the tee is amazing.”
To the established stalwarts like Hailey, the quiet intimacy keeps them around and allows them to learn about the nuances of the game as it unfolds on the fourth hole.
“We got a tip from one of the marshals that, from the time you hear them hit the ball, it’s about four seconds until it lands,” Hailey said. “It’s fun watching the strategy of how they’re going to putt, and it’s a learning experience.”
Despite it being one of the shorter holes on the course at just 176 yards, the fourth hole is no cake walk. The sand traps flanking all but the backside of the green cause golfers to commit to a very straight approach, and depending on the placement of the cup that day, can either lead to the majority playing it safe and going for a two-putt if they hit the green off the tee, or a more opportune putt for birdie if the pin is placed near the center to front-left side of the green, which was the case Saturday.
“Yesterday the pin placement was difficult because the only bailout was going to the left, so a lot of people ended up 40 feet out to the left, taking their par and got out,” said course marshal Gary Derscheid of the cup location on Friday. “There were like 140 golfers and only six birdies on the day, then today (Saturday) there has probably been four birdies before noon.”
The puzzling 7th hole
Then there is the seventh hole. It’s the longest of the par-3s, with a sizable false-front to the green that turned several would-be birdie putts into chips Friday morning. The green is complete with several small mounds and dips across its surface that make it about as easy-to-read as an 18th-century legal document.
“Nobody has been able to read it right all morning. The putts either die or break away right at the end,” said Bob Woods, a Wisconsin native who has been attending the Phoenix Open for 15 years.
As far as why he chose to sit at the seventh, Woods was a bit more matter-of-fact.
“Well, I’m out here because it’s right in the middle. You’ve got eight teeing off over there, the sixth green nearby, and we’re right next to a concession stand,” Woods said.
As if the complex green wasn’t trouble enough, golfers faced a brutal front-left pin placement Friday, which brought a greenside bunker into play and made the green’s false front all the more noticeable. Several golfers saw tee shots roll hopelessly off the putting surface back into the fairway, forcing them to navigate an awkwardly angled uphill chip with a narrow landing area. Some golfers countered this pin placement by aiming for the center of the green, opting to two-putt and save par instead of going for birdie.
For Talor Gooch, however, the best of both worlds was attainable. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy landed his tee shot in the dead center of the green before sinking a 38-foot birdie putt that wowed the crowd at No. 7. From a greenside folding chair, Woods was able to offer some succinct analysis.
“He’s the first one that’s read it right so far,” Woods said.
The task was easier said than done for most competitors, but that difficulty was part of why fans encircled the seventh green.
The deceptively beautiful 12th hole
Situated right on the water, the 12th hole has made its mark as arguably the most challenging hole at TPC Scottsdale. A dangerous water hazard on the right with a sloping gradient toward said water causes many golfers to play the hole fairly conservatively. But that conservative mindset can easily be punished thanks to a pair of sand traps that border the left side of the green.
“I watched about 18 groups while I was working up at the green on 12 yesterday, and I didn’t see any birdies, but I saw about six balls roll off into the water,” course marshal John Lehotan said. “The hole is really just a mind game. You don’t want to play too far to the right because of the water but also not too far left because of the sand.”
Golfers have had a tough time mastering the 12th hole’s mind games. Through Saturday, the field hit a course-low 20 birdies on the 12th, less than half the amount of the average hole. But some still managed to find success on the hole despite its difficulty. Andrew Putnam of Tacoma, Washington, produced arguably the most spectacular shot of the day on Friday, when he salvaged a rough approach by burying a 44-foot putt to put him one under for the tournament. Canada’s Adam Hadwin even birdied the hole on back-to-back days, a big reason why he’s on pace for his fourth top-10 finish of the season.
But many of the top golfers at the tournament found consistency on the hole to be more important than excellence. England’s Matt Fitzpatrick is one of them. The 27-year-old from Sheffield parred the 12th on each of his three attempts through Saturday.
“With the water on the right and everything kind of feeding that way anyway, you have to be careful. You have to make sure either you hit it left or you hit with a club that’s going to be short of the water,” Fitzpatrick said. “The big thing is I’ve hit my irons pretty well this week, which I feel like put me in a decent position on that hole in particular.”
The 12th hole is every bit as beautiful as it is challenging. A large grandstand up the hill gives fans an impeccable view of the hole and the surrounding scenery, with the nearby Phoenix mountains serving as a stunning backdrop. Not to mention the 16th hole is right across the water, leaving the noise of the delirious fans to echo out over the rippling waves. Because of this, it remains a favorite among those looking for an exciting hole without the high-energy atmosphere of the 16th hole.
“Yesterday we were at 16 all day, tomorrow we’re getting up at 4 to do the run to the 16th, so today we just wanted a nice relaxing day drink,” spectator Charlie Gates said. “And this is just a beautiful spot to post up at. You can see five holes, mountains in the background, the 16th hole right over the water. It’s just a great spot.”
Regardless of why the 16th at TPC Scottsdale became the loudest show in golf, the fans flock to its stadium seating in droves.
As gates opened early Friday morning, scores of fans sprinted across cart paths and fairways to beat the line for the 16th. By midmorning the stands were rocking, erupting every time a tee shot landed on the green, then groaning in unison every time someone found a bunker.
The slightly inebriated, 20,000-voice chorus provided one of the most unique soundtracks in all of sports, let alone professional golf, even if its origins were tough to pin down.
Yet, even with a drunken symphony of charades constantly cascading down from the grandstands of the 16th, the TPC Scottsdale offers a diverse experience, satisfactory to every type of fan. Whether it be the rowdy frat boy chugging beers to the crowd’s delight, or the seasoned, decadeslong fan looking for a moment of serenity and calm away from the noise – whatever it may be – it can be found somewhere from the tee box on hole No. 1 to the green on 18.
“The 16th is just so different. You’re over there and it’s just a party,” said Neil Choksi, who spent most of Saturday taking in the theatrics of the 16th hole. “It’s a lot of heckling, a lot of encouragement, and then over here (on hole 4) everything’s so calm, it’s a completely different vibe. If you’re here for more than two days, you need to see both – four and 16 – and everything in between just to get a good feel for the course.”
And that’s exactly what you get once you explore holes four, seven, 12, 16 and everything else in between: a good feel for a course that gives its fans everything from excitement and energy to peace and silent focus.
Tom, Eli, Spencer and Nick are all graduate students specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow them on Twitter @macho_average, @ThePenOfEli, @spencp99 and @nrucco16