SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Before Justin Thomas stepped onto the TPC Scottsdale property, he could see that this year’s Phoenix Open for waste management was going to be different.
When he pulled up, Thomas had a view of the 18th hole from his car and did not see the large structures full of suites on either side of the fairway.
And that was just the beginning, thanks to a significant downsizing of the course due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no stands at # 1, # 9, # 10 or # 17. The only hole that has stands is the 16th – the legendary par 3, known for its arena setting and party atmosphere is. But also the signature hole of the tournament looks different.
It’s a one-tier structure instead of three. There are no grandstands – meaning the fans who come to the square at 5 a.m. to sprint to get their seats on the fairway and green have disappeared – and the suites are divided into four zones, however Fans cannot enter any sections other than their own.
However, fans could pay to have their faces shown on the facade around the hole. And the tournament chairman Scott Jenkins said there will be mandatory masks and no food or drink in the first two rows of folding seats around the 16th. He expects the daily attendance to be between 4,000 and 4,500 fans, far from the daily average of 102,739 in 2018 when the tournament last announced attendance – when a daily record of 216,818 was set this Saturday .
“It won’t be anywhere near a full house, just with restrictions on the number of people in each zone,” Jenkins said. “I think we’re pretty happy with our plan.”
The typical suite had 40 tickets, but Jenkins said the cost analysis of reducing the quota to 20 – and thus the price of the suite – didn’t make it worth building the usual three-tier structure that could accommodate more than 16,000 fans. The capacity this year is around 2,000.
Keeping the structure of the 16th hole intact was a priority for the tournament.
“We have a new logo that is in the shape of the 16th hole, so we thought it was important,” said Jenkins.
Defending champions Webb Simpson doesn’t think fewer fans or a smaller structure will have a big impact on players by the age of 16.
“I don’t think you will see that much difference in the scores,” he said. “I think PGA Tour players have this weird nature about them: the tougher and more chaotic an environment, the more they focus and they hit good punches. There have been some amazing punches over the years.
“I don’t think it will really affect the results. I just think that the overall energy at 15, 16, 17 with the lack of fans there will be different and kind of a disappointment. But anyway, it looks like it is it expanded. I haven’t been out there yet, but it looks like it’s a good amount expanded. Hopefully they get as many as possible. “
Although smaller, the 16th hole is the only sign of normalcy in this most unusual Phoenix Open.
Concessions on the course are mostly gone – there are some concession booths and tables and chairs dotted around the course. There is no big tent. The entry was only dialed back into one ticket area instead of a number of providers. Signs reminding fans to wear masks and eat or drink 10 feet behind the rope line litter the square.
But the self-proclaimed People’s Open won’t have a lot of people, and the course will be pretty open. The course looked huge, empty, and wide open on Tuesday as it prepared to let fans in for Pro-Am Wednesday. It looked more like the TPC Scottsdale golfers can play in June than the one that welcomes nearly 750,000 fans each year.
The smaller crowd and lack of a noisy atmosphere convinced Rory McIlroy to play for the first time in his career.
“I think it was definitely this year with fewer fans here – I certainly think a more attractive option to introduce myself to the tournament,” said McIlroy.
After playing the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course as it is this year, McIlroy said he needed to come back to see the course, and the 16th hole in particular, in all its glory.
But for now, McIlroy, who hasn’t won in 15 months, is happy to play in front of some fans.
“”[The fans] should make it a much better atmosphere than we’ve been used to for the past few months, “he said.
The tour has played mostly empty seats since returning to the Charles Schwab Challenge in June. The relative emptiness will certainly be felt this week. Maybe even more.
“In this tournament, at the end of the week, we always feel like we’ve only played one major because we’re so tired – you have to fold a lot throughout the round,” said Simpson. “You have to be extra focused on preparing for a shot because there is just a lot of noise.
“So, I think I won’t play the course any other way, but I definitely think I can save a lot more energy knowing that in a normal year on the fourth or fifth hole there might be someone screaming in my back swing. I probably won’t have that much of it this year. “
Or at all.
Thomas said fewer fans on the track could affect his lines of sight, especially from the tee. “I think people, the crowd would be amazed at the number of times we target something, whether it’s a man in the yellow behind the green or on the edge of the stands or the ShotLink tower,” he said. “It seems like you can always find something, whether it’s a tree or something that isn’t normally there.
“I think that was the biggest difference that we can use these stands or people as lines or reference points. You obviously don’t have that that often right now.”
The process to bring the tournament to this week started this summer, Jenkins said. It got to the point where he was on the phone weekly with the PGA Tour and Scottsdale representatives to discuss attendance numbers. At one point the number was fixed at 8,000 a day, but that number quickly fell.
While Arizona COVID-19 cases have declined since Jan. 4, when they peaked at 11,969 confirmed cases for a day, the state is always at a rate of 67.2 cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period still the third in the country to the Centers for Disease Control.
Jenkins considered the data when consulting tour and city officials when Arizona had its highest rates late last year.
“We only understand where we are as a community with COVID, and it really was just our decision among executives to limit that attendance from 8,000 to 5,000 ourselves,” Jenkins said. “But that was an internal decision and was not driven or challenged by anyone. We just had the feeling that it was the right thing to do.”
– J.T. Poston (@JT_ThePostman) February 2, 2021
Jenkins added, “The last thing any of us want is to see that this is exactly the same old party vibe.”
In August, the tournament announced that it would not build the usual number of suites. Jenkins also knew that a decision would be premature in September, when construction normally begins throughout the course, or in October as the situation is fluid due to the virus.
By September, Jenkins had a clearer picture of how many fans were allowed in, and construction of the 16th hole began in mid-November.
Throughout all of this, Jenkins knew what it was about.
Together with other members of the Thunderbirds, the civic organization that hosts the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he was at the Players in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida in March. He was at the Chainsmokers concert at TPC Sawgrass on March 10th. The next day he was on a flight back to Phoenix when the sports world closed – with the exception of golf. The players allowed fans the first day of the tournament on March 12th. Before the round was over, it was announced that fans would no longer be allowed to start the next day, but the tournament was canceled before the second round.
“It was surreal to be at an event the day before, a golf event, and the next day the world changed,” said Jenkins. “And really, when it got summer we knew we’d be dealing with it for the foreseeable future, and some kind of pity party ended for me.
“The world has to do with it. It’s terrible, but it was just time to roll up our sleeves and get the best out of every situation we face.”