Lynch: The nasty hangover from TPC Scottsdale is being felt at Riviera. Is it time to call last orders at the Phoenix Open?

Feb, 2024

LOS ANGELES — It’s difficult to find more disparate experiences in consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour calendar than the WM Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational.

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One is held at a modern course designed with spectator flow in mind, the other isn’t. One is at the center of every sporting conversation in its host city that week, the other isn’t. One is viewed by some Tour players with an aversion usually reserved for gas station sushi, the other isn’t. One attracts and engages fans at a level that’s the envy of most tournaments on the schedule, the other doesn’t. One stretchers out more inebriated, vomit-flecked fans than LIV draws in, the other doesn’t.

On the grounds at Riviera Country Club, much of the chatter remains focused on events at TPC Scottsdale, where the viral social media videos included Tour pros in terse exchanges with spectators, a pair of Two-Can Van Dammes brawling, shirtless belly slides in the mud, and a barely-conscious chap perched on a stool, blissfully unaware that he was also urinating.

It’s golf, but plastered.

The WM Phoenix Open is a known quantity. Tour players understand that the party vibe at TPC Scottsdale isn’t just tolerated, it’s welcomed. Merchandise offerings celebrate the boozy bro culture, like T-shirts proclaiming the wearer got hammered at the 16th hole. One friend at Riviera said he heard from a spectator in Scottsdale who was upset when beer sales were suspended. “There was nothing else to do but watch golf,” they griped.

That scene isn’t to all tastes, so many players choose to skip it. But the festivities last week proved two things: that giving free rein to jackasses doesn’t end well, and that the Tour’s new reality will force an uncomfortable reckoning for its most popular event.

The social media era has spawned a disease in many sports, in which a handful of spectators believe buying a ticket makes them part of the entertainment, apparently convinced there’s an audience dying to hear their slurred witticisms or watch them guzzle beer from a shoe. In most venues, that group is blessedly small. Not so at the Phoenix Open. To an extent  —certainly more than they’re accustomed to — Tour players need to suck it up and tune out oafs riding the rope lines while offering commentary. That’s just part of being a professional athlete. The issue in Scottsdale is that the rope line is no longer the final frontier. Players won’t — and shouldn’t — tolerate people running onto the course to make snow angels in the bunkers, or yelling during the hitting of a shot with the intent of distracting competitors.

The standard defense offered by WMPO loyalists — if you don’t like it, stay home — is no longer fit for purpose. Only the stars can vote with their feet and walk. For everyone else, starts in Tour events are tougher to come by than ever, so staying home is a luxury they can’t afford. And if the Phoenix Open sees the quality of its field decline because of boorish fan behavior, that’s a problem. If women working on-site feel unsafe because of groups of leering drunks, that’s a problem. If spectators are emboldened to go inside the ropes, that’s a problem. When fans gleefully initiate and record conflict with competitors, that’s a problem.

Whose problem? The PGA Tour’s, partially, since that’s the brand being damaged. But moreso for the Thunderbirds organization that runs the event.

It’s not like the Phoenix Open needs to be taken over by the temperance movement — and the game certainly needs reminders these days that fans matter just as much as players — but there has to be a line on appropriate conduct that is policed effectively, and right now that line hasn’t so much been blurred as entirely erased. The alternative is more elite players choosing not to compete, more fans opting not to put their kids in the middle of a bawdy piss-up, and more reluctance on the part of the Tour and its partners to embrace the entire experience.

Perhaps Riviera needs a little more TPC Scottsdale, but TPC Scottsdale needs a lot more Riviera. Perhaps it’s futile to ask spectators in search of a party to act responsibly, but it’s sure as hell not too much to ask of the tournament organizers.

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