What makes a sporting event entertaining?
What makes a sporting event a chaotic and potentially dangerous mess?
Beset by bad weather and worse behavior from a fanbase that nearly raged out of control and then saved by an incredible finish to the actual golf tournament, the 2024 WM Phoenix Open gave clear answers to both questions.
The 2024 WM Phoenix Open was drunk and depraved
For years, it seemed like the WM Phoenix Open knew something almost no other professional golf tournament didn't. Their annual desert-stadium-golf shindig has brought in hundreds of thousands of fans for decades. It was even big before Tiger Woods' eardrum-rattling ace took it to another level in 1997. TPC Scottsdale's 16th hole didn't have built-up stadium seating back then, but it still had thousands of people standing around it, creating an organic stadium effect, courtesy of the course's design by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish.
The key word here is "organic." From afar, it always seemed that the tournament recognized how well-suited it was to welcoming gaudy numbers of fans one week each February, and made incremental improvements that simply gave more people the opportunity to see the best golfers in the world ply their trade on a golf course whose back nine is more full of dramatic holes than just about any on the professional circuit, save Augusta National.
But in recent years, the tournament has seemed to turn from delirium to debauchery in the desert - Burning Man for bro-golfers with newfound disposable income.
When Joel Dahmen and Harry Higgs took off their shirts on the 16th green in 2022 to whip the crowd into a frenzy, it was funny and self-deprecating. But when thousands of beer cups rained down from tee to green after Sam Ryder's Saturday hole-in-one, it seemed different from the raw roar and roof-raise that Woods ace a quarter-century earlier inspired. A little uninhibited, a little menacing.
Yes, some beers rained down on the 16th tee box in 1997. An understandable reaction, frankly. But the green complex remained unmolested. Fast-forward a quarter-century and the putting surface looked more like the aftermath of the Gathering of the Juggalos than a decades-storied golf tournament.
Is that progress? Is that necessary? I can't say yes to either of those questions. I appreciate that the WMPO is different and even a little edgy, but after Saturday's videos of falling-down drunks and even fistfights in the galleries, it's clear that the tournament organizers have a spiraling situation on their hands. Hopefully they'll look to the past for answers.
I admire how the WMPO became the most-attended/rowdiest PGA Tour event, propelled in part by Tiger’s iconic ace. But I feel like most of that happened more or less organically. It seems the event has embraced that identity a little too firmly of late, and things are spiraling. https://t.co/xRWux766H4— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) February 11, 2024
Captain Canada saves the day
However grimy 2024 WMPO Saturday was, Sunday was as pleasurable and satisfying a tournament-viewing experience as I have had in a long time. Watching Charley Hoffman turn back the clock in pursuit of his first win in eight years - at the home of his most loyal sponsor, no less - after years of mediocre play was a reminder that even the 300-something-ranked golfer is dangerous. He played fearless golf on Sunday, thrillingly against type for a 47-year-old journeyman.
But in the end, he went down swinging to Canadian Nick Taylor, who birdied three of his last four holes in regulation, the capper starting a run of three of the best consecutive haymaker putts you will ever see, each one with a different celebratory fist-pump that made me think that perhaps pro golfers aren't all emotionless robots after all. The final one was a callback to the moment of the year 2023 in pro golf, when Taylor hooped a 75-foot putt to win his home Canadian Open, ending a 69-year drought for his countrymen.
In the end, what made the WM Phoenix Open satisfying was the golf, not the party.
With all due respect to Ms. Swift, even though the Super Bowl turned out exciting (eventually), the WMPO's finish, for those who didn't abandon golf in favor of football, was the "game of the day." And with the 2024 Presidents Cup coming to Royal Montreal Golf Club, it seems International Team captain Mike Weir has a pressure-golf menace in his corner in Nick Taylor.