SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — You probably don’t know Dan Fox, but all the PGA Tour players do. As one of the senior-ranking Thunderbirds, Fox has been greeting the pros on the 16th tee at TPC Scottsdale for 15 years now. So when Keith Mitchell arrived late Thursday morning, there was the normal cordialness that comes with seeing a friend, followed quickly by a frank question from Mitchell.
So, what’re they hitting?
It was important to pry for context on a day like Thursday, when the hole that’s supposed to be oh, so fun turned into more of a torture chamber. Mitchell stood over a 7-iron on the 173-yarder, surely second-guessing something. That’s what his ensuing contact sounded like, at least. His fade was seized by the breeze and crashed into the right-side paneling on the stadium hole. Mitchell laughed it off, because you have to. Also because his ball kicked into a solid pitching position, from which he made bogey. The boos he heard weren’t as loud either, now that spectators realized they might be in the firing zone.
When Fox woke up Thursday morning and saw the forecast calling for 20-25 mph winds out of the northeast, he knew one of the most famous holes in the world needed a slight adjustment. “I was laying in bed and thought, ‘I need to tell the guys to put flags up on 16,’” Fox said. And so they put up four flappers — three American flags and one state flag of Arizona. Fox wanted to help players out, but there was definitely some information overload taking place.
Those three-story bleachers are airier than they look. Wind does get through them, but how much? That was the question of the day. The flag atop the bleacher behind the green signaled a cross wind blowing directly to the right. The flag behind the tee indicated a direction 60 degrees different. The wind near the ground — well, it mostly had a mind of its own and couldn’t be trusted.
“It’s really just a wind tunnel,” Fox said after seeing the first group all choose 6-irons — the longest clubs he’s ever seen pros choose on the 16th. Fox has been there for a total of five aces — four as the hole marshal and then one memorable one as a fan back in 1997. In all of his days on the 16th, he couldn’t really think of a tougher one than Thursday. He was there when Tyrrell Hatton’s caddie, Mack Donaghy, provided a two-word assessment of Thursday’s conditions: “f—king brutal.”
As the crown jewel hole of The People’s Open, the 16th hole is built to appeal to the top of sport’s bell curve. Fans of all variety pile into the arena, drink their beers, cheer on the golf, turn away from it quite often, not stay silent and even bask in the sun a bit. But today’s 16 was for the golf’s sickos. The nerds who obsess over ball flight and trajectory and cherish the sight of players fretting over club choice. The same golf sickos who didn’t get any carnage a week ago at Pebble Beach, when wicked wind conditions forced tournament officials to suspend play. Jordan Spieth had just played a 7-iron into the short, downhill 7th hole and was elated when it found the edge of the green. Golf watching was just about to get good, and then came the horns. The sickos slid down their couches.
But Thursday was a treat. Players hit 6-irons into the 16th, a far cry from the norm, when they waffle over 9-iron or wedge. “I could just hit a drop 8 in there,” Adam Hadwin said standing behind his teed up ball, 7-iron in hand. Hadwin backed off, grabbed the 8 and hit it to 32 feet, which was the standard for success. Only six players made birdie from the morning wave.
Sam Burns second-guessed, too, backing away as a gust came in. He ended in a greenside trap. Rory McIlroy got booed for backing off his ball when the wind picked up. “It’s just tricky,” he explained a moment later. Safely on the green, we quickly changed topic to Netflix instead. The best result of confusion came from Patrick Cantlay, who had opted against the 8-iron. He grabbed 7 and tried a low strike, puring it too good. What a treat it was when the typically emotionless Cantlay showed how dumbfounded he really felt. Sheer bewilderment. His ball bounded through the green, earning a smattering of boos, of course, and even more when he eventually made bogey.
The next group put a finishing touch on the abnormal day. Mackenzie Hughes, who normally grabs a wedge, no questions asked, went after an 8-iron. It landed on the edge of the green and fell off into boo-landia. Hughes turned to his caddie and held two fingers tight together. This close. He then unpeeled a banana and walked over to share the ultimate truth of the afternoon: “These people aren’t going to have much to cheer for today.”