The “Greenest Show on Grass” is also the “Rowdiest Outdoor Party Where Sometimes Fans Actually Stop To Watch Golf.”
Officially, it’s the Waste Management Phoenix Open and it’s back this week, although in a decidedly toned-down form.
Always the most highly attended PGA Tour event of the season, there are typically an estimated 200,000 fans who pass through the turnstiles just for Saturday’s third round, always the busiest day of the party, er, tournament. The crowds usually swell well north of 700,000 for the entire week.
But the world ain’t what it used to be and that goes for the Phoenix Open.
“It’s going to feel like nothing,” said Jon Rahm ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego last week. Rahm is always a crowd favorite at TPC Scottsdale because he went to nearby Arizona State.
“Relative to how the tournament normally plays, I think it will feel like there’s no one out there,” said Xander Schauffele before the Farmers.
Spectators have been scarce since the Tour returned to action last summer. The Vivint Houston Open in November had about 2,000 fans per day on site. The Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico also had some fans in attendance. Expectations are that there will be about 5,000 fans per day at the Phoenix Open, although Tournament Director Scott Jenkins said they’re not committing to a specific number.
“Last week in Abu Dhabi there was some fans. It wasn’t 5,000 but there was about 100 out there and it felt good,” Rory McIlroy said at Torrey Pines last Wednesday, a few days after he played in the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. “It felt good to hit a good shot and get a clap and get a reaction. I’m looking forward to welcoming fans back.”
Most of the Phoenix Open’s VIP suites and grandstands were not erected this year, but a version of the 16th hole “coliseum” was constructed once again to enclose the craziest par 3 in golf. Normally big enough to hold as many fans as an NBA arena, it will house far fewer this year.
“Normally our 16th hole is three stories and houses 16,000 people. This year it’s one story, still yet to determine how many people we’re going to have in there, but obviously much reduced,” Jenkins said.
Per COVID protocols, all fans will have their temperature checked upon entry. Masks will be mandatory and the policy will be enforced, Jenkins said. The seating areas will be spaced out. “It’s a 192-acre golf course,” he said. “We think it’s very conducive to social distancing.”
So whether it is indeed 5,000 fans allowed in each day or something close, it’ll have to do this time around.
“We’re entertainers, so when you have the feedback from the crowd, it’s a lot more enjoyable,” Rahm said. “We’re going to miss the usual atmosphere in Phoenix. It’s a very unique event, it’s a very fun event and everybody will be missed, but 5,000 is better than nothing.”
After Phoenix, the Tour goes back to California for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles. Neither event will have fans. After that, it’s time for the Florida swing with tournaments that will have fans, but not a lot of them.
“It’s going to be gradual, I don’t think anything’s going to be at capacity or 100 percent for a while, but the fact that Phoenix is going to have 5,000, maybe the Florida events might have a little bit more that,” McIlroy said. “Gradually welcoming people back as the vaccine gets rolled out and we try to get back into a more normal world, I think it’s a good thing.”
As for the Phoenix Open’s Bird’s Nest, the normally packed concert venue that is the golf tournament’s nightly after-party is off this year. Look for it to return in all its glory in 2022.
This year, the Phoenix Open will be distilled down to a quaint event with all the focus on the golf.
Todd Kelly is the assistant managing editor for Golfweek and golfweek.usatoday.com, part of the USA TODAY Network.