PGA Tour

Thunderbirds, Rock Concerts, and Caddie Races: the History of the Phoenix Open

After last week’s spin around Torrey Pines, the Tour hits another iconic locale this week with the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. This is undoubtedly the season’s most popular event both anecdotally (Google “loudest hole in golf”) and statistically (last year’s Saturday attendance of 201,003 (!!!) was a one-day PGA Tour record).

The vibe will be less golf tournament and more Spring Break this week. Arizona St. students make the drive over from nearby Tempe, bringing their penchant for partying and perma-ready Spring Break bodies with them (UA students will be there too, but their national reputation is sorely lacking). Off the course, there’s a four-day music festival going down in the evening at the Bird’s Nest, a perfect way to parlay a day full of drinking into a night full of drinking. This year’s lineup features the diverse stylings of Toby Keith, Flo Rida, and Blink-182, among others. On the course, there’s a general buzz (literally and figuratively) which permeates the telecast, a result of hundreds of thousands of people standing around, drinking, and having a good time. Nowhere will this be more apparent than the famous 16th hole (pictured above). The epicenter of action features a staggering amount of people who really couldn’t care less about the golf beyond whether they collect on their side-action with buddies. And even then, honestly, a good amount of people still don’t care. They’re there for the booze and scenery. God bless them.

Up until a couple years ago players used to be able to chuck stuff into the stands along the 16th hole, caddies would race the 150 yards or so from the tee to green, and poor standard bearers would try with all their might to be invisible for some 15 minutes or so. While these first two sources of fun have been stripped away thanks to the infinite wisdom of some Suit somewhere, the overarching energy at the Phoenix Open remains firmly debaucherous.

 

Tournament Roots

The Phoenix Open is a lot like the city of New Orleans.

Hear me out.

On the surface it’s a week-long kegger in the desert. The antithesis of your average Tour stop. In a similar vein, when the possibility of visiting New Orleans comes up, most thoughts immediately turn to Bourbon Street, Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, and further poor decisions. The tournament, and the city, are synonymous with tying one on.

But apart from their well-deserved reputations, both also have long, distinguished histories. In the case of New Orleans, characteristics like the city’s deep French-creole heritage, stunning architecture, centuries-old traditions (Mardi Gras anyone?), and claim to fame as the birthplace of American jazz lend an aura of unmistakable historic significance to the town, even if the perception of most revelers doesn’t extend beyond the rim of their plastic cup.

So while many golf fans might think of the Phoenix Open as simply the biggest party in golf, the place Tiger made that ace one time, the history of professional golf in Phoenix actually extends back to the earliest years of the PGA Tour.

The Phoenix Thunderbirds

The first iteration of the Phoenix Open took place in 1932 and was promptly dumped from the schedule after 1935. In 1939, the tournament was resuscitated and has been running along smoothly ever since. What happened between ’35 and ’39?

The Thunderbirds happened.

In 1937 Phoenix’s Chamber of Commerce created a special events committee of five guys called the Thunderbirds, whose job was to boost the city’s stock as an entertainment destination. These five captains were tasked with picking two full basketball starting lineups to create a 55-person “official” group of Phoenix promotional professionals. Triple Ps, if you will.

Bob Goldwater was one of the original Thunderbirds, and ol’ Bob had the golf bug. He suggested the Thunderbirds sponsor a professional golf tournament, and when he was met with near unanimous disapproval, Bob pressed on and basically did the whole damn thing on his own. From the T-Birds’ official website:

That first year [in 1937], Goldwater sold the tickets, recruited volunteers and set up the golf course at the Phoenix Country Club. The Phoenix Open caught on, and in 70 years, has developed into one of the leading stops on the PGA TOUR. Goldwater was Tournament Chairman from 1934 through 1951 and is affectionately called the “Father of The Phoenix Open.”

Two things about this little anecdote. One, good on Bob Goldwater for sticking to his guns, committing to something he was passionate about, and seeing it through to success. As far as golf nicknames go, Father of The Phoenix Open is not half bad.

And two, how cool would it be for something like this to happen in this day and age? I know there are dozens of professional golf tours worldwide, and every week of the year is now double-stuffed with pro tournaments, but imagine if a city’s chamber of commerce (or more likely, a lone billionaire) moseyed in and said they were starting a new golf tournament? I’m thinking something like Kerry Packer’s estate finally opening the doors to Ellerston and televising a $15 million exhibition event. That would be wild.

Anyway, the Thunderbirds have prospered since the advent of the Phoenix Open, and proudly support some of Arizona’s most visible charities and causes, including the Special Olympics, Boys and Girls Clubs, and United Way. On the golf front, the T-Birds sponsor the Thunderbird Collegiate Invitational, with proceeds going to ASU’s golf teams; the Thunderbird Junior and Senior Golf Classics; and the Thunderbird International Junior, which brings together junior golf champions from all over the world.

The setup and governance of the Thunderbirds might be the most interesting part of the organization. Much like a college fraternity (or an acapella group, since my school didn’t have Greek life), the Thunderbirds have a set number of active members, all of whom have demonstrated “a sincere interest in sports and a dedication to community affairs.” In a nod to the original committee, the set number of members is always 55, with active members past the age of 45 graduating to Life Member status.

This is where things get a little secret society-ish. The Thunderbirds roll around in purple velvet looking tops with large, menacing chains. The identities of the 55 active members are not published, members wear silver pendants on leather necklaces, and each year the “Bead Committee awards silver beads to those members who have performed their respective duties with quality and efficiency.”

The president of the Thunderbirds (not pictured) is referred to as ‘Big Chief.’ Note here, though, the purple velvet-ish top and menacing chain worn by all.

What exactly these “respective duties” consist of, I can only guess. I’m picturing these guys as some combination of SEC football booster, rich philanthropic uncle, concert promoter, PR/marketing exec, benevolent Mafia don, and those guys who stand behind the endzone at Gillette with the muskets.

Past Winners

Four players have won the event three times. Gene Littler (1955, ’59, and ’69 (nice)), Arnold Palmer (1961-’63), Mark Calcavecchia (1989, ’92, and 2001), and local boy Phil Mickelson (1996, 2005, 2013). Mickelson’s first win was in a playoff over Justin Leonard, and his victory in three different decades at the same tournament speaks to his crazy longevity on tour. Some highlights of that first victory are below.

J.B. Holmes has two dubyas here, as do Vijay Singh, Bob Gilder, Johnny Miller, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, and Ben Hogan.

Solid company to find yourself in.

Notable Finishes

2016

Last year, both Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama birdied the 72nd hole to set up a sudden death playoff. Rickie took out the driver on the fourth playoff hole, the short par-4 17th, and things went south from there.

Fowler’s tee shot caught one of those speed ramps in the old MVP Baseball ’05 hitting game and rocketed all the way through the long, narrow green and into the drink. Hideki walked away with his second PGA Tour win, and comes into the tournament this week with the second best odds to win (per Bovada). Sean Martin put together a nice feature on Hideki’s rise to the top of world golf, on which he took a radically different path than his hero Jumbo Okazaki.

2009

This is as good a place as any to discuss how the Phoenix Open usually falls on Super Bowl weekend (go Pats). In ’09, Kenny Perry and human thumb Charley Hoffman went to a playoff, which continued through the kickoff and first quarter of Super Bowl XLIII, featuring the hometown Arizona Cardinals. I can’t imagine that playoff had too many viewers.

2001

Mark Calcavecchia absolutely decimated the field in ’01, racking up tournament records for final score (256, -28), lowest round (11-under 60), and most total birdies (32). The Calculator won by 8 strokes over perennial Phoenix contender, and all-around good guy, Rocco Mediate.

1997

Quick, name the 1996 U.S. Open winner.

No luck? Try this name on for size: Steve Jones. The man with perhaps the most normal name in the United States actually has a very unusual backstory: he struggled early in his career, then won four times in a two-year stretch from 1988-89. In ’91, he suffered multiple injuries in a dirt bike accident and missed almost three seasons. He started his comeback in 1995, and won the biggest prize of his career at the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. Jones won three more times on Tour, including defeating Jesper Parnevik and Nick Price in the 1997 Phoenix Open.

Tiger also made an ace.

1996

In ’96, the tournament was played from Wednesday to Saturday to accommodate the Super Bowl being held in nearby Tempe. Frankly, this is a brilliant idea and should be implemented every year. That, and the day after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. President Trump, any help here could only boost that approval rating.

1975

Johnny Miller was unconscious during the mid-70s, and won the Phoenix Open in 1975 by 14 shots, which is still a tournament record. His 24-under final score was the lowest on Tour in 20 years. He would go on to win again that year in Tucson (by nine shots). Let’s check in with the always-humble Miller for some insight on this part of his career.

“When I won at Tucson by nine shots in 1975, I would say the average iron shot I hit that week was no more than two feet off line. It was unbelievable. When I was at my peak, I would go into streaks where I felt that I could knock down the pin from anywhere with my irons. I played some golf that I think is unequaled.”

Tremendous.

Odds and Ends

*Tiger Woods hasn’t played the Phoenix much during his career. Whether that’s because of his commitments in Dubai, his aversion to Phil’s hometown, or some PAC-10 ASU rivalry, I’m not sure. But back when he did play it, this happened:

*Andrew Magee made an ace on the par-4 17th in 2001. It is the first, and still only, hole in one on a par 4 in the Tour’s history, and he made it with a little help from his friend.

*Five hundred new general admission seats were added to the grandstands at the 16th, bringing the hole’s capacity to over 16,000. This is more than half the size of the LA Chargers’ new home.

*Perusing the list of past winners, I was surprised, and a bit saddened that John Huston never won in Phoenix. It’s a sanctuary befitting a true ornithologist.

 

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