A volatile mix of huge crowds, mud and alcohol at the WM Phoenix Open had fans and players talking about changes needed to keep the event safe while maintaining its unique atmosphere.
On Saturday, the tournament shut its gates in the early afternoon, leaving ticketed fans unable to gain entry. At the same time, alcohol and food sales were cut off — all in an attempt to ease crowding near the entrance. The issue, organizers believed, was that muddy conditions left much of the course unsuitable for fans, forcing them to crowd into smaller areas.
The Scottsdale Police Department also cited the unusual weather.
“The course conditions were not normal due to the mud and rain,” Allison Sempsis, the department’s public information officer, said. “This resulted in the large crowds only occupying a small portion of the course and caused large buildup of crowds.”
Sempsis also noted that, at one point, fans were being allowed in without having their tickets scanned.
“There was a large group of attendees that were stopped before going through the gate,” Sempsis said. “Attendees were waved through for a short time period in order to keep everyone safe and to create a larger space for people to move around on the course.”
The tournament stopped announcing daily attendance figures in 2019. The last time attendance was made public, 576,807 fans watched the four days of tournament action, including over 200,000 on Saturday, which is typically the most crowded and chaotic day.
Sempsis said, “Every year after the event, SPD and other partnerships continually assess and evaluate what can be done the following year to ensure everyone attending the event is safe and has a good experience.”
As intoxicated fans reveled in the conditions Saturday, that safety came into question.
All over the course, shirtless fans found muddy hills to slide down. A shirtless fan leapt into a bunker on the 16th hole to do sand angels. Videos of fans who were unable to stand straight took hold on various social media sites.
For many tournament regulars, those events and other logistical issues tipped the scales.
One regular attendee, Todd Williams of Phoenix, has gone to the Open for 10 straight years but said the tournament would need to announce “drastic changes such as multiple new entrance points and more concessions” for him to continue attending.
“I’m all for the party and craziness,” Williams said. “The insane and rowdy crowds make the event. This year, Friday felt like a normal Saturday, and Saturday was just complete chaos. It was hard to enjoy the event when it took 30-plus minutes at any concessions and bathrooms were long waits, too.”
Elizabeth Suchocki, a regular attendee who lives in Tempe, echoed that sentiment.
“I felt cramped and anxious,” Suchocki said. “All of a sudden, there were just so many people in our area. … But people just kept packing in and packing in and there were people all over. And I was like OK, this is a lot of people, this is very uncomfortable.”
Suchocki was frustrated by the lack of communication from the tournament. At 2:05 p.m. Saturday, the Phoenix Open’s X account posted a message notifying fans that gates were closed but made no mention of food or alcohol sales being impacted. And with overcrowding on the course, many fans were unable to get cell service.
“If you’re going to shut down alcohol, if you’re going to shut down food, you need to communicate that over the speakers,” Suchocki said, “because it created more chaos.”
When the tournament’s account posted a video on X on Sunday morning celebrating the party atmosphere on the 16th hole, it received 50 replies, almost all of which were critical.
“Your event has become an embarrassment,” one reply read. “It’s out of control.”
“Embarrassing the game,” read another. “PGA players need to boycott next year.”
Tour pros debate where to draw the line
Billy Horschel likes the WM Phoenix Open. Loves it, even. Every year, playing in the event is a priority for him. Partly because he believes TPC Scottsdale suits his game, but for more than that, too.
“I love the energy, I love the crowds,” Horschel said. “I love some of the funny things they say.”
Typically, the players who choose to participate in the Phoenix Open revel in the event’s unique role on tour. With a handful of notable exceptions, like Chris DiMarco’s famous comments in 2004, they celebrate the atmosphere.
After his win in Sunday’s playoff, champion Nick Taylor said, “The atmosphere has been incredible all week.”
But that sentiment began to shift for some. By Sunday afternoon, Horschel had seen enough. That’s when he was shown on video yelling at a fan for heckling during Nicolo Galletti’s backswing. “Buddy, when he’s over a shot, shut the hell up, dude,” Horschel told the fan. “He’s trying to hit a damn golf shot here. It’s our (expletive) job.”
Outside the clubhouse after his round, Horschel explained to The Republic where he draws the line.
“When you’re impacting the golf tournament, that’s where it gets a little bit too much,” Horschel said. “And when you’re saying personal things. The last couple of years, the guys I’ve played with, I’ve heard some personal stuff yelled at them. And I think that’s just not right.”
Whether players decide not to return to the tournament remains to be seen, but Horschel said it became a discussion point this week.
“It’s been talked about amongst players about, if this would continue to escalate over the next few years, you could see players not want to come here,” Horschel said. “And that’s an unfortunate situation.”
Horschel said he would be back, but Zach Johnson — another player who was shown in a viral video over the weekend arguing with fans — was not so committed.
“You’re hitting me at a very emotional point right now, so if I were to say if I’m gonna come back, I’d probably say no,” Johnson told The Republic. “But at the same time, I have no idea.”
Johnson added, “This tournament has been inappropriate and crossed the line since I’ve been on tour and this is my 21st year.”
He plays in it, he said, because he likes the course. But this week, his frustrations mounted.
“I don’t know what the line is, but you have people falling out of the rafters, you have fights in the stands,” Johnson said. “It’s to the point where now, how do you reel it in? Because it’s taken on a life of its own. I think the Thunderbirds probably need to do something about it. I’m assuming they’re ashamed. Because at some point, somebody’s either gonna really, really get hurt or worse.”
Like Johnson, Horschel worries about a tragedy occurring with the number of intoxicated fans on the course.
“We all know alcohol plays a massive factor in all of this,” Horschel said. “And I think limiting the alcohol sales, limiting what time alcohol starts, limiting how many drinks someone can buy. I think there’s a couple different (solutions) that can happen.”
Horschel said he spoke with the Thunderbirds — the group that runs the tournament — to voice his complaints.
“I think they understand the situation and they want to do right for everyone involved with this tournament,” Horschel said. “So we’ll see what happens.”