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'The People's Open' went too far this year — what's next for the tournament

The Waste Management Phoenix Open took over Scottsdale last weekend. The annual tournament was marred by unseasonably wet and chilly weather — and unusually rowdy and unruly fans. 

And that’s saying something.

The golf tournament is dubbed "The People’s Open" and it’s known for being a little different than the rest of the golf circuit. Its 16th hole is billed as “the most exciting hole on the PGA tour," and it’s famous for being rowdy, fun and packed with partiers. 

But this year, things seemed to go too far, with drunken fans becoming the headline — and certainly the talk of social media. And now, the head of the Thunderbirds, which runs the event, says changes are coming. 

Jack Hirsh is the assistant editor at GOLF Magazine and he joined The Show to talk more about it all. 

Interview highlights

So, the Phoenix Open is supposed to be a little rowdy, right? Like it's kind of its thing, but tell us a little bit about what was different this year.

JACK HIRSH: Yeah, so this is the highest attended tournament of the year on the PGA tour to put it into perspective. Some of the smaller venues — I'll use an example because I'm in Philadelphia — so I'll use when Marion had the U.S. Open a couple of years ago, that's a smaller venue, they'll have about 20 to 40,000 spectators in a day. I think Marion was closer to 20,000. LACC last year for the U.S. Open, similar venue.

TPC Scottsdale is built as a stadium course so they can hold a lot more. They build these mounds for people to sit on and watch around the course. So they'll have – the last time they stopped reporting attendance figures — but the last time they did, they had over 700,000 people for the entire week. So that, and that includes about 200,000 on Saturday. Saturday is always the biggest day. 

A couple of years ago, there was a hole in one on that stadium hole par 3 the 16th and pretty much beer went everywhere when that happened. There was also, that year two players, one made a putt and they both lifted up their shirts and threw them away. That was a big deal with Joel Damon, was one of the players, he kind of became famous for it and then was featured in the Netflix docuseries full swing about that. So it's always a big deal.

But it's never really, I don't think it's ever really been viewed as a problem. Players have certainly avoided it because of that there. It has gotten a pretty good field because Scottsdale is where a lot of tour players reside, like Max Homa. Jon Rahm lives in Scottsdale. And so a lot of good players previously had been playing it. Last year, all of the best players in the world played it because it was designated as well. That year, it was called designated events. Now, it's called the signature event, so it had a $20 million purse. It had the best field that it ever had. This year it wasn't that, however, there were still great players in the field. Scottie Scheffler was in contention. But it just seems like too many people wanted to go despite all of this rain and the rain complicated things because those mounds that I talked about, you couldn't really sit on them. You would just slide down and become a muddy mess. They lost a significant number of grass, all of their grass parking spaces.

And actually my one colleague who was down there, Claire Rogers, our social media manager, told us that it would normally take her on an average practice day or last year, it would take her about five minutes to walk from the practice tee to the 16th hole. Because of just how packed in it was on Saturday, she said it took her 45 minutes to make it through all the people. There were people being trampled. There were fights breaking out all over the place that you saw on social media and it was, it just, it certainly seemed like it had crossed the line.

Now the head of the group that runs this event says there are going to be some changes coming. Do we know what those might look like? How different this tournament might look next time around?

HIRSH: No, not exactly yet. It seems like, Chance Cosby, the director of the Thunderbirds, you mentioned, said that they met, the Thunderbirds met, and the leadership of the tournament met on Saturday night for about five or six hours. And he was asked on Golf Channel whether those changes would include more security. And he basically said, we haven't made that decision yet. I'm sure that would likely be more security and I think it's likely we'll see a reduction in ticket sales.

I'd be interested to know, like I said, they don't release the attendance numbers. I would be really interested to know what the final attendance number was on Saturday. Watching the broadcast, they reported that already — this was early in the broadcast – that already 200,000 people had showed up on Saturday. Sometime right around 12 o'clock, and I believe the gates were closed, which had never happened before. Right on Saturday, gates were closed around 2 p.m. and that's also when they stopped the sale of alcohol for the rest of the day.

Can they maintain a balance? Can the Phoenix Open keep being kind of a fun and rowdy event, but without this kind of chaos going forward?

HIRSH: That's a great question because, and, I just spoke to my father who also writes about the culture of golf. And it's a really difficult line to walk because golf has this aura. if you will, of being the stuffy elitist game and the Phoenix Open is everything that that's not. And that's why that's so great for the game.

Me, personally, it kind of hurts that the Masters is the golf tournament everybody knows about because it's the one that's probably the most stuffy and whereas the Phoenix Open is completely the opposite. So I do think there is a way to find that good balance that keeps it as something that people want to go to and people view as something different and fun, but yeah, there obviously has to be changes. I saw that ejections had doubled last year, arrests almost quadrupled or almost tripled from last year and last year was pretty rowdy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jon Rahm and Jack Hirsh's names.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.