SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA (AP) – For the first time, the Phoenix Open was staged at the Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale, and course designer Tom Weiskopf wanted to know what the players thought.
Before responding, Tom Byrum had to pause for a moment.
Byrum reflected, “I guess all I could come up with was I didn’t know how far out here it was.”
It was 1987 at the time. The Open returns to the TPC Scottsdale for the 36th time this week. The location is no longer a point of contention. Instead, moving the tournament to the TPC has proven to be one of the most brilliant decisions in Arizona sports history.
“It’s almost like a Super Bowl for the Phoenix area every year.” “I don’t think anyone expected that,” said Deane Beman, former PGA Tour commissioner.
How could they do that? The Tour and the Phoenix Thunderbirds were only concerned at the time with finding a larger venue than Phoenix Country Club, which had hosted the tournament on a permanent basis since 1975. The Thunderbirds began selling disposable cardboard periscopes so spectators in the rear could look over the heads of those in front of them in the mid-1980s, when the galleries had inundated the course.
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After weighing numerous options, including renovating Papago Golf Course, it was decided to develop a new course within the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, near the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs in north Phoenix. Beman and the Thunderbirds found a willing partner in a land developer, but when it came time to get clearance from the Phoenix City Council, “we had our head handed to us,” Beman said. Jose, there was no way.”
That’s when Beman got a call from Herb Drinkwater, the mayor of Scottsdale at the time. Drinkwater stated he wanted Beman to visit a piece of property he owned. Beman landed at Scottsdale Airpark, where Drinkwater met him. During the drive, Beman advised Drinkwater that moving the event outside of Phoenix would be tough for the Thunderbirds.
“Do you know where we are right now?” Drinkwater asked when they arrived at the property.
“It’s true,” Beman added. “Scottsdale, Arizona.”
Drinking water spilled all over the street.
He asked, “Do you know where we are now?”
Beman said, “No.”
“You’ve arrived in Phoenix,” Drinkwater explained. “You’re going to pass up this opportunity because of a few inches?”
Beman was bought and sold. He’d seen how PGA Tournaments hosted “out in the boonies” aided expansion, and he was confident that the Phoenix Open would do the same for north Scottsdale.
“It didn’t worry me that the golf course was a little out of the way from the action,” Beman added.
Others had been. The first event at TPC was chaired by Pete Scardello in January of 1987. He’d have lunch at Phoenix Country Club, where he was a member, a couple of times per week in the months leading up to the event. His lunch was always accompanied by a side of mockery.
“Other members would say things like, ‘Hey, Pete, I like you, but no one is going to the tournament out there,'” Scardello remembered.
Scardello’s worry of barren galleries was the least of his worries. Fans, he believed, would appreciate the clear sight lines and freedom to roam around without feeling as if they were at a crowded bus terminal. However, he and the rest of the Thunderbirds were in the dark — both figuratively and literally – when it came to organizing the first event.
“Because we hadn’t been there before, we didn’t know what we were doing,” Scardello explained. “I was the crash dummy,” says the narrator. We didn’t aware there was no electricity at the property until we arrived. We had to pay for APS (Arizona Public Service) to bring in a power line.”
At Phoenix Country Club, roping off the fairways took three hours. At the TPC, it took the better part of two days. Scardello received word on his walkie-talkie on Thursday that his wife needed to speak with him. He located a phone and dialed her number, to which she replied, “I’m out here on No. 15.” Each line has six (portable toilets) and a total of 25 persons. “I think you should get some more.”
“I believe we got to 20,” Scardello remarked. “There were just a lot of different things that we didn’t appreciate the extent of what we were doing, from buses to security.” We’d never done something like that before.”
Nonetheless, the first event, which was won by Paul Azinger, was a huge success. The week’s attendance was 257,000, up from 186,000 the year before. Fans told Scardello in the weeks after the event that they had stopped attending the tournament because it was too crowded at Phoenix Country Club.
“When we arrived out here, it wasn’t at all busy,” they added. “It’s fantastic.”
Of course, it’s a little more crowded these days. Approximately 720,000 fans attended the 2018 competition throughout the course of the week. The previous year, tournament organizers did not release attendance data.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of golf events,” remarked Steve Jones of the Champions Tour, who competed in 1987 and 1997.
Much of the credit for the tournament’s success goes to the stadium concept at the par-3 16th hole, although Byrum believes the unique environment had more to do with beer than aces, at least at first.
“I’m not sure what the draw was other than the fact that beer had been provided for a long time,” Byrum explained. “On a hill, there was a beer stand that stayed open later, and it was the perfect small amphitheater for people to congregate around.”
Whatever the case may be, the Open has gone a long way since its bleak start.
“I don’t believe anyone could have predicted what it’s turned into,” Beman remarked. “It grew on its own.” To be honest, I’m extremely proud of it.”