Thursday, February 29, 2024

Tour Confidential: Has the party at the WM Phoenix Open gotten out of hand?

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The famous 16th hole at the WM Phoenix Open.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us at @golf_com. This week, we discuss the chaotic weekend that was in Phoenix, and what to expect from Tiger Woods’ 2024 debut.

Due to overcrowding, the WM Phoenix Open cut off alcohol sales and closed its gates from ticket-holders entering the course Saturday. The tournament has long marketed itself as the biggest party in golf, but on Friday a spectator fell from the 16th hole grandstands, and several videos shared on social media showed wild scenes and irritated Tour pros. (In a statement, the WM Phoenix Open said it closed the course since heavy rainfall led to severe congestion at key points.) Are these instances outliers, or has the biggest party in golf finally gotten too big?

Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): Are we supposed to be surprised by any of this? It’s exactly the type of atmosphere the tournament has cultivated for years. I don’t think of this as a tipping point. It’s just the odds playing out. You don’t get to throw a boozy fraternity party for tens of thousands of people and then act surprised or disappointed that some crazy things went down. 

James Colgan, news and features editor (@jamescolgan26): As someone generally terrified of large crowds, enclosed spaces, and overserved twentysomethings stoking the embers of their problematic college youth, WMPO sounded like it might literally be the worst place on earth for a few hours on Saturday. On Sunday morning, it seemed like the players began feeling that way, too. Yeah, it got too big for a little bit this weekend, but I’m mostly glad I watched that happen from the comfort of my living room.

Sean Zak, senior writer (@sean_zak): The biggest outlier was the storm mother nature dumped on Phoenix in the lead up to this event. But this event is all about fans standing out compared to the normal golf fan. They promote “Look what I can do,” or “Look what I can shout.” If enough players speak up, tournament organizers will do something. But it may be too far gone to really contain it easily. 

WM Phoenix Open fans
The Canadian contingent of fans was out in full force all weekend.

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Should any preventative measures be taken going forward? And how do you tone down the Phoenix Open without ruining its reputation that’s made it stand out from other Tour stops?

Sens: This thing has gotten so big and wild that you could probably cut the crowds in half and place stricter limits on booze and still have an event that stands out from other Tour stops. But that’s still no guarantee that things wouldn’t ever get out of hand. Maybe just rebrand it Golf, but Dumber so you have complete buyer-beware deniability.

Colgan: Obviously the tournament organizers lost control for a bit this weekend and would be wise (for basic legal and public health reasons) not to do that again, but I don’t think there’s an existential issue here. Cut the crowds a little and hope for better weather next year.

Zak: What I appreciate most is the tournament just pinning these issues on the rain. Sure, it led to overcrowding, but you know what also leads to overcrowding? Selling hundreds of thousands of tickets. This event was overcrowded in 2023, when there wasn’t a drop of rain. So yeah, I think preventative measures begin with selling fewer tickets. Or maybe build out a reason for those fans to actually go out to the 6th or 7th holes, rather than focus on the final three. 

Tiger Woods will make his first PGA Tour start since the 2023 Masters when he plays the role of tournament host/participant at the Genesis Invitational, which begins Thursday at Riviera Country Club in LA. What are you expecting to see from Tiger? And can he finish in the top 20?

Sens: Tiger being Tiger, I expect plenty of brilliant shots and maybe a couple of stellar rounds. The question is whether his leg/body can hold up on all cylinders for four rounds.That seems unlikely. If I were a betting man, and unfortunately, I am, I would wager heavily that he finishes outside the top 20.

Colgan: I’m expecting to see a guy who’s capable of both making the cut and walking 72 holes. I think we’ll leave feeling pretty good about the state of his game, and I think top-20 is actually a realistic expectation. Four problem-free rounds on his feet, though, and we could be having a separate conversation headed into Masters week.

Zak: Tiger Woods’ best chances to win golf tournaments, both this week and forever moving forward, will be on firm, tough golf courses. Tracks where a ball-striker who can hit it both ways and make a bunch of 12-foot putts. Riviera is one of those! So I’d expect him to be rusty, but good enough to shoot under par twice, make the cut and finish T27. 

A week after the PGA Tour received an investment of what could be reach $3 billion from the Strategic Sports Group, promising to make players “equity partners” in the new, for-profit PGA Tour Enterprises, commissioner Jay Monahan provided an update on how players will actually receive said equity. The Tour will be issuing 193 equity grants to 193 players, with the grants falling into four different categories. Players will have earned equity based on performance, PIP results and other factors. Any issue with how this is being handled? And, more importantly, will this be enough to keep players happy, especially those who might be lured by guaranteed LIV Golf money?

Sens: Sigh. Boy, is this stuff tedious. The spectacle of very rich people getting even richer is interesting only to those people. For most of the rest of the world, it’s a turnoff. Golf fans certainly aren’t benefiting. I don’t see how any of this puts the game in a better place. If lavish sums of money were enough to stop top players from jumping to LIV, that would have happened already. It hasn’t.

Colgan: If I’m being perfectly honest, about the least of my concerns on the planet at this moment is how a group of 200 millionaires will split $1 billion. But to borrow from a zillion politicians before me, part of the issue with handouts is that somebody has to decide who gets them. I’m sure people will be mad, but on the bright side, they’ll be mad and rich.

Zak: The numbers that matter most are the equity value received by Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, etc. Players who would have received offers from LIV Golf in the realm of $50 million. There are 36 players who are receiving Group 1 grants, which is essentially the PIP crowd. The Hideki Matsuyamas of the world. But if Hideki passed on a $200 million contract from LIV, what is his Tour equity grant worth? Nothing close, I’d think. But still enough to make him happy. At least that’s the idea!

Cristobal Del Solar became the first player ever to shoot 57 in a PGA-Tour sanctioned event when he accomplished the epic feat in the first round of the Korn Ferry’s Astara Golf Championship at Country Club de Bogota-Pacos in Bogota, Colombia. But are all sub-60 rounds created equal, especially since Del Solar’s took place on a 6,254-yard par-70 at nearly 9,000 feet of elevation?

Sens: They’re definitely not all created equal. But I don’t think it’s worth it to start sticking asterisks next to great scores. That’s just golf. Conditions vary. Courses do, too. Sure, we could have fun trying to rank where Del Solar’s round ranks among sub-60 rounds. Just as long as we don’t start taking our opinions too seriously.

Colgan: First off, I should say that what Cristobal did on Thursday is nothing shy of remarkable. I literally cannot fathom shooting a score that low. Irrespective of the conditions, it was a brilliant round. That said, I think even he would admit it falls well short of a historic standard.I hate to drop the A-word here, but the asterisk next to this round better be in size 36 font. 

Zak: Rounds like this are quite literally part of the reason Strokes Gained was invented. To understand even better that every round shot in every competition across the world is different because it was shot in a different arena. Kudos to being the first professional Mr. 57, but I also doubt he’ll be there forever. 

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