Golf has historically proven better at imitation than innovation.
In that case, the Thunderbirds, the Phoenix-based philanthropic organization that runs the PGA Tour's WM Phoenix Open, should feel flattered, yet again.
Next week's PGA Tour event, the AT&T Byron Nelson, just announced that the short par-3 17th hole at TPC Craig Ranch, which will host the tournament for the third time, will transform into a raucous, 6,000-seat pro golf stadium and hospitality haven along similar lines to the iconic 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.
In a nod to the tournament's namesake, who bought a ranch with winnings from his pro golf exploits, the Salesmanship Club of Dallas (the AT&T Byron Nelson's equivalent of the Thunderbirds) have even branded the build: Ranch17.
There's something a little incongruous about an intense cauldron of rabid golf fans honoring the legacy of Nelson, a champion who was known for his quiet and genteel nature, but nevertheless, Ranch17 seeks to be the next step in the circusification of pro tournament golf.
Ranch17 has a lot to live up to
In order to be a resounding success, Ranch17 at TPC Craig Ranch will need to compare favorably to its counterpart at TPC Scottsdale. Three main factors have combined to make that iconic par 3 a fun spectacle over the years.
1. Origins: it has evolved gradually over time.
The grandstand setup at TPC Scottsdale's 16th was significant in 1997, when Tiger Woods' hole-in-one became one of the first in a long line of watershed moments in his playing career. But that eardrum-shattering ace made it a legendary set piece. The Thunderbirds did what any group of business people should do with such a moment: they capitalized on it.
The hole itself does not otherwise stand out much in the midst of Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish's otherwise entertaining modern design (coincidentally, TPC Craig Ranch is a Weiskopf course, too). But its pre-penultimate place in the round positions it perfectly for hospitality suites and heavenly sales of food and beverage to general-admission fans, who have learned to line up at dawn to dash to one of the coveted thousands of seats beneath the temporary stadium's 250-plus skyboxes.
2. History: it was a one-off phenomenon for years.
TPC Scottsdale's feral fans - in rare form when Sam Ryder made a hole-in-one in 2022 - prove an exception to the rule about golf's relatively subdued crowd behavior expectations. The WM Phoenix Open's Super Bowl-weekend calendar spot also gives it a nod towards football's typical spectacle. The passage of time has also helped it transcend mere-gimmick status. Its one-week-a-year weirdness - the only time during the season when booing and jeering and making noise while someone hits a shot are acceptable - has been (mostly) embraced by the players, fans and media. With minor exceptions over the rest of the season, golf's conservative forms of celebration prevail.
🗣 ACE ON 16 🗣— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 12, 2022
What a place for @SamRyderSU's first ace on TOUR! pic.twitter.com/5AemLzhVG2
But amid golf's recent popularity surge, TPC Scottsdale copycats are springing up with the thought that more noise might mean more fans. A late par 3 at Detroit Golf Club during the Rocket Mortgage Classic gestures toward the stadium concept. It's an odd anachronism, located as it is at a classic Donald Ross design. The DP World Tour has spiced up specific holes at occasional events, too, with mixed results.
If you've been following LIV Golf this year, you may have seen a wild scene erupt at their recent event in Adelaide, Australia, where they set the 12th hole at Grange Golf Club up as "The Watering Hole," a stadium whose well-lubricated fans went wild when Chase Koepka made an ace during play. Their reaction was the same as the '22 incident in Arizona: drink vessels littered the length of the hole, forcing a delay in play. "Golf, But Louder," perhaps, but it was also mostly a scale model of the TPC Scottsdale scene.
Imitation, not innovation.
3. Architecture: the 16th at TPC Scottsdale is no pushover par 3.
Measuring as long as 175 yards, with typically firm winter conditions and swirling breezes, it's a tricky shot, especially when the pin is placed near the edges of the raised green, which roll down into chipping areas. That's boo-bird territory for players who end up there. This year, 16 at TPC Scottsdale played over par, with 50 birdies, 58 bogeys and 7 double-bogeys and worse.
The 147-yard 17th at TPC Craig Ranch is a significantly easier, less threatening hole. It played under par last year on a course that is one of the three easiest on tour. There are token perils in the form of four bunkers guarding its large green, but PGA Tour pros are scary-good out of greenside sand. Don't expect much in the form of jeers this year unless the wind kicks up and things firm up.
The hole did see an ace in last year's final round, which, if repeated this year, will make for a fun TV moment. But it's hard to count on. More than likely, spectators and TV viewers will see a mess of pars and a handful of birdies. Not exactly scintillating on its face. A bit more death-or-glory design in the future - more short-grass surroundings, smaller green - might help the hole match up to its new coliseum atmosphere.
In the end, the AT&T Byron Nelson's attempt to catch the same lightning that the WM Phoenix Open did will require a little luck, be it in the form of challenging weather or a crazy moment that directly affects the outcome of the tournament. Tiger Woods isn't walking onto that tee anytime soon, but maybe some other player will make an ace that raises the tournament's profile a bit. Or take off his shirt.
That hole at Scottsdale looks terrible. Doesn't even look like a golf course. Looks like they're at a Topgolf. All those grandstands ruin the beautiful landscape surrounding the course. I hope they don't leave those there when the tournament's over.
Golf is a spectator sport not a spectacle. One such tournament is enogh replete with beer throwing rabble rousers.