SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Thousands of humans fidgeted in their stall like frozen cattle, pressed up against iron fences. Pink flickers of the sun were peeking out over nearby McDowell Mountain. It wasn’t just the start of a new day, it was the start of Phoenix Open Saturday, the craziest day on the golfing calendar.
Women in sun dresses huddled together for warmth in the feels-like 45 degrees air. They were allowed to make bathroom trips, but only one by one. No buddy system. In any other instance, these circumstances would be undesirable. But every one of these fans wanted to be there. Or at least their friends had convinced them properly.
Like many things at the WM Phoenix Open, the half-mile sprint ticket-holders make to the 16th hole is a tradition that plants its toes firmly on the line between absurd and simply fun. Police officers line the paved runway in advance of collisions and injuries. It’s bound to happen. Sergeant Wes Shaffer served a reminder for the gentlemen in pole position:
“Take it easy, now. I don’t get paid to get run over. I get paid to move the fence.”
But then a second later, a proud member of the Thunderbirds came by with advice: “High knees. I wanna see some high knees boys. Good form.”
Those Thunderbirds — the local group that runs the event — are playing with house money and they know it. They tossed green tee shirts into the crowd and delivered complimentary coffee to the first people in line. Tournament officials across the PGA Tour season have shown up all week wondering how they can stir up an ounce of this rabid fanhood for their event.
“They all want the secret sauce,” one Thunderbird said.
That secret sauce was enough to send a 16-person bachelor party group to bed after a couple seltzers Friday night. They tucked themselves in around 9 p.m. and rose in time to join the line around 2 a.m. They would have loved to do as most bachelor parties do, but ultimately they decided “we’re not that young.”
Among their younger counterparts was Orion Zakas and his crew, who showed up around 2:15 after attending a Lee Brice country concert Friday night.
“We’re running on beer and Uncrustables,” Zakas said.
Next to him was an athlete from Grand Canyon University who had recently fractured his AC Joint, but stood at the head of the line with his sling and his smile. Further back were plenty of others in full costume — the George Washington quartet, the pair of astronauts, even a masculine Snow White.
The goal is obvious: get to 16 as quickly as possible. The route isn’t as obvious to first-timers — it’s just a fish-hook around tournament tents and a pond — nor is the start time. The gates are opened only once there’s enough daylight coming up over the mountain peaks. On Friday morning, this sprint is less intense, but it gets the same stable treatment. One of Friday’s sprinters had apparently consumed too much pre-race vodka and threw most of it back up when they reached the grandstand.
News teams had been rolling on the action for hours. A couple minutes before the start, one red light switched on and a broadcaster shouted into his mic, “Welcome…to the running of the bros!” It’s not the biggest compliment but ‘the bros’ loved it. This is what they came for.
Tournament staffers prepared themselves up the drive, clearing carts. A PGA Tour producer flew a drone overhead, to which the heathens chanted Shoot it down, Shoot it down, Shoot it down! The rest of the tournament was just getting warmed up. Players hit balls on the dewy practice range, preparing to restart Friday’s second round.
Local police demanded patience as they cautiously pulled the gate open. PGA Tour Live broadcaster Colin Swatton stepped in with mic in hand. Five, four, three, two … Ryan Sandoval tapped Play on his phone screen. He was the one talking a big game. It was just a half mile, with a downhill stretch in the middle, and he figured he could do it in three minutes and thirty seconds. So he cued up the perfect song: “Let’s Get it Started” by the Black Eyed Peas. Run-time: 3 minutes, 38 seconds, with ideal lyrics.
And the base keeps runnin’, runnin’ and runnin’, runnin’ and runnin’ runnin’…
Sandoval ripped around the first turn so quickly he nearly took out a tournament staffer dragging a waste bin. He had somehow built a three- or four-second lead over a member of the bachelor party.
“You’re way ahead,” I shouted from my perch above it all. “I know!” He gasped, grabbing his hat to keep it from slowing him down.
The rest of the horde followed like a stampede, eight runners wide. The George Washingtons had gotten split up in the mayhem. Same for the bachelor party. After the first three hundred or so exerted their supreme fitness, it was clear that not everyone was in a race for first place. One sneaky man slugged from a Coors Light mid-trot. Another tried a shortcut around the concessions truck but didn’t veer quickly enough back onto the route. He smashed into a metal dumpster, knocked a garbage bin into the path and popped back up to rejoin the chase. Those behind him leapt over the debris. There was no time to…waste.
The prize was delightfully different this year, too. A 90-minute frost delay Thursday morning pushed back the tournament’s first two rounds so that pros actually arrived on 16 hours earlier than normal. Like the crowds we see shopping on Black Friday, it’s a supply and demand matrix. There are only so many seats on 16 and it’s first-come, first-served.
Sandoval lived up to his promises, weaving around the 17th tee and up to the stadium’s entrance. He may have beat everyone else but he didn’t beat the Black Eyed Peas. The last few Runnin’ runnin’s from will.i.am played out just before he finished. Unofficial time: 3:43. By the time Zakas and crew caught up, they shared the award of third-row seats and pure elation. About a half hour later, the golfers arrived, along with some thirsty chanting.
Serve us beer! Serve us beer! Serve us beer!