In my 42 years as a sportswriter, I’ve been lucky to witness special moments in some of sport’s great venues.
I’ve covered Rose Bowls with more than 100,000 spirited fans. I’ve stood on the front straightaway at Indianapolis and felt chills in the moments just before the start of the 500. I’ve sat behind home plate at Fenway Park, watched Michael Jordan win an NBA championship in Chicago and felt the energy of New York as the Yankees clinched a championship.
They’re among the best memories of my career.
But there’s nothing quite like a caddie race on the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course.
The 16th is surrounded by grandstands and close to 20,000 people who DO NOT limit their feelings to a golf clap during the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open. They chant, sing, boo, hiss and cheer.
What do they bet on?
The caddies, for one thing. They’ll pick which caddie in a threesome will be the first to step onto the green, or which of the three will pull the flagstick, or which will drop his clubs onto the ground first. The possibilities are endless from this creative crowd, and the bills are passed around as much as the beer.
With screams of “Go Green! Go White! Go Blue!” from the grandstands, the caddies play into it. Many of them sprint the final yards toward the green in a true race.
Often, though, the caddies will pull a fast one on the crowd. They might race as usual toward the green, then stop one step short and all plant a foot on it unison. Dead heat, bets off.
Or, one caddie may be yards ahead but playfully stop and tie his shoe just inches from the putting surface, only to let another take the first step onto it. Hey, gamble at your own risk.
A few years ago, one trio of caddies peeled off just before reaching the green and never set foot on it at all. Fred Couples pulled the stick.
The 16th at TPC Scottsdale has been called a mini-Fenway because of the grandstands surrounding the hole and it’s been likened to college football because of the raucous crowds. It’s 167 yards of sights and sounds that many golfers love, some merely endure and others absolutely hate.
Ian Poulter enjoys the 16th, although he didn’t have much fun during the final round two years ago. He’d stuck his tee shot seven feet from the hole, drawing a big cheer (especially from those who’d bet on him to be closest to the hole).
But, as Poulter walked toward the green, something bizarre happened. The crowd that had cheered him all week suddenly began chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” It seemed like a reminder of Poulter’s words months earlier, when he criticized U.S. fans for the verbal abuse they dished to the European team at the Ryder Cup.
Poulter clearly didn’t seem thrilled with the chants as he arrived at the 16th green, but what he didn’t know was that the “U-S-A!” chant wasn’t directed toward him at all. Many in the crowd were following the U.S.-Canada hockey game from the Vancouver Olympics on their phones and radios, and the U.S. team had scored a goal just as Poulter walked from tee to green.
Then, when Poulter missed his birdie putt, the crowd booed him. Poulter’s response? After he tapped in for a disappointing par, he scratched his nose – using his middle finger.
The crowd saw it and booed him even more. An innocent international incident became fodder for serious conversation on the post-tournament coverage.
“I was getting something off my face,” he wrote on Twitter that night.
What the golfers must remember is that the chanting, chiding and booing from the 16th-hole crowd is all in good fun. Unless your name is Rory Sabbatini, who this crowd loves to hate.
There doesn’t even need to be action on the tee or green for the crowd at 16 to have a good time. There often are gaps in the field and there may be 15 minutes or more without any action, so the crazies at 16 create their own.
One year, a guy in the general admission seats near the green started the wave. It swept through his section, down the right side corporate boxes and around the tee box, but then stalled when it reached the corporate boxes left of the green.
Fans in the general admission seats booed, then started another wave that began strong but fizzled again in the same corporate section left of the green. The GA fans booed again but this time they didn’t start another wave, they chanted “Corporate sucks! Corporate sucks!”
A group in the corporate boxes delivered a quick rebuttal: “We get free drinks! We get free drinks!”
The GA folks always have the last word, though, and they did with this: “We don’t need a buyout! We don’t need a buyout!”
The corporate folks went back to their free drinks, a threesome stepped onto the tee and everyone went back to what they all do best at No. 16 – cheering, jeering, chanting, booing and betting. Anything but a golf clap.