Trotter: Everyone loses if PGA Tour fails to make changes at WM Phoenix Open

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Trotter: Everyone loses if PGA Tour fails to make changes at WM Phoenix Open

The 2024 WM Phoenix Open should be remembered for Nick Taylor’s magnificent performance, which began with a course record-tying 60 in the first round and ended with three consecutive birdies on Sunday, the last of which gave him a two-hole, sudden-death playoff victory over Charley Hoffman at TPC Scottsdale.

But years from now, when reflecting on what took place, we are more likely to remember the drunkenness, boorishness and unruliness of fans than we are the brilliance of Taylor and the other golfers — and that’s an issue local tournament organizers and the PGA Tour need to wrap its arms around before things get completely out of control.

I get it; the WM Phoenix Open has always been known for its excessiveness, particularly on No. 16 where fans — some in costumes, many drinking — seemingly take more pleasure in booing tee shots that miss the par-3 green than they do in cheering the ones that stick. But this year went beyond that in a significant way.

There was the idiot who jumped shirtless into a bunker, the man who sat on a chair in a drunken stupor and urinated on himself while others walked by as if it were normal behavior, the woman who fell over the railing on No. 16, the blacked-out patrons who were carried out on people’s shoulders, and the fans who fought along the gallery ropes.

On Saturday, tournament officials closed the entrance gates and halted beer sales presumably because the crowds were growing too large and the situation too unruly. While a cause for concern, what should have the attention of PGA Tour officials is the reaction of players who were so put off by the incivility that they confronted spectators in the middle of their round.

Zach Johnson, one of the Tour’s more mild-mannered participants and someone who is known for being unfailingly polite, lost patience and confronted a fan who was heckling him about the Ryder Cup loss and his decisions as team captain.

“Don’t sir me. Somebody said it,” Johnson said, clearly frustrated and angry. “I’m just sick of it. Just shut up.”

Billy Horschel admonished someone in the gallery for talking loudly while his playing partner, Nicolo Galletti, was in his backswing. “Buddy,” Horschel said for everyone to hear, “when he’s over a shot, shut the hell up.”

South Korean-born golfer Byeong Hun An said the following Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter: “S—show. Totally out of control on every hole. … Yes, I know what I signed up for. Played here multiple times over the years and it was fun until today.”

If the Tour (and/or the Thunderbirds, the local organization that runs the event) fails to take note, how long before the players begin to feel the hassle isn’t worth it and skip out on the event? And if that happens, everyone loses — the Tour, which is in a battle with LIV Golf for audience retention; the players, who will miss out on one of the higher-paying non-signature events; and the well-behaved fans who want to see some of the world’s best golfers and not some local Johnny throwing back pints like he’s Homer Simpson.

For years, the atmosphere was considered good fun. It was different from any other Tour event as fans were able to raise the energy by raising the roof. Players also had fun with it, like two years ago when Harry Higgs pulled up his shirt after parring No. 16 and group mate Joel Dahmen removed his shirt and twirled it above his head, all while fans tossed beers onto the green. The tour may not liked it, but Netflix sure did when it made it a major part of Dahmen’s episode of “Full Swing.”

Everyone seemed to enjoy the uniqueness of the tournament in general and the hole in particular. It allowed a break from the stuffiness normally associated with what’s known as the gentleman’s game. The Tour even leaned into the frat-party atmosphere, accepting it as a one-off on the schedule and not pushing back on the unofficial moniker of the People’s Open.

But the Waste Management now resembles the Wasted Management. Organizers have failed to recognize that people generally are predisposed to push the boundaries of behavior. And each time some boorishness is tolerated or accepted, it becomes the floor for the next act of debauchery until we finally get what we got last weekend.

Some will attribute the excessiveness to weather delays that allowed for more drinking. Although possible, could it also be simpler than that? Could it be that people viewed it as an opportunity to act like fools because there was no fear of major consequence?

Before this year, I was interested in attending the Phoenix Open and taking in the controlled rowdiness of No. 16, though never understanding why anyone would spend more than $13 (2020 price) on a beer only to throw it on the green. But maybe that’s better than people consuming them, because too many people like to use alcohol as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, which can result in worst-case scenarios.

I’ve had a chance to attend two games as a fan in the last couple of years, one at Lambeau Field, and the other in Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Neither was enjoyable because of inebriated fans who act as if they are free to say and do whatever they want.

The Phoenix Open may be known as the People’s Open, but the people should never be the story. The golf should. That was not the case this year, sadly.

“I think the Thunderbirds probably need to do something about it,” Johnson told reporters afterward. “I’m assuming they’re ashamed because, at some point, somebody’s either gonna really, really get hurt or worse.”

(Photo: Ben Jared / PGA Tour via Getty)