It was a Thursday back in 2013. Phil Mickelson approached the ninth green (his 18th hole of the day) on the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale eyeing immortality with a putt for hallowed 59. I elbowed my way into a crevice of the crowd to catch a glimpse as the birdie slid past the cup, his then-caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay writhing in agony along with the shoulder-to-shoulder fans who had turned this often uneventful putting surface into the center of the golf world for a few fleeting moments.
Usually the entertainment epicenter on the PGA Tour’s popular Arizona stop is the famed 16th, which over the years has evolved into the golf’s Roman Coliseum. Fans seated high atop the stadium wager openly on which player in each threesome will land closest-to-the-hole honors, and balls missing the green are met with good-natured jeers.
Tiger Woods jolted the golf world in 1997 with an ace at the 16th. Caddie races from tee to green used to be a mainstay, resulting in frequent SportsCenter moments before the PGA Tour’s cover-their-ass mandate put a stop to the favorite Scottsdale tradition. And on my first day inside the walls in 2013, Padraig Harrington punted footballs into the stands, further electrifying the crowd that had assembled on Super Bowl weekend — the tournament’s standard spot on the schedule.
If for no other reason than No. 16, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is glorious chaos, compounded by the often 100,000-plus-fan party (although this year they’ve announced they will no longer make attendance figures public) that continues inside the gates each day balls are in the air and deep into each night thanks to the Birds Nest concert series. It’s called the Greatest Show on Grass (and Greenest because of its sponsor) for a reason — it’s sheer spectacle. Nothing on the PGA Tour is quite like the scene at TPC Scottsdale the first weekend of February. And yet, for many years, I had no desire to actually play golf on this TPC track.
[To get a glimpse of what Arizona’s TPC Scottsdale looks like the rest of the year when the PGA Tour isn’t in town, check out Brian Oar’s photo gallery above. *And please share photography responsibly.]
Sure, the Stadium Course has always been a great place to watch golf. Long before players arrive at the famed 16th and make their way toward the finishing hole, where the likes of Phil, J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan and Brooks Koepka have cashed million-plus winner’s checks, the interior holes provide a chance to escape the crush of the crowds and watch some of the best players in the country up close.
But for the average golfer — the resort player who tees it up the other 51 weeks of the year — TPC Scottsdale always just looked too long, too hard and, honestly, too plain for too many holes, especially without the stands in place to provide the backdrop we’ve come to expect from watching on television. In my mind, the Stadium Course was emblematic of a disconnect between the PGA Tour and the Real Golfer that unfortunately exists all too often across the country. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who saw the need for improvement.
Enter (or make that re-enter) 1973 Open Championship winner Tom Weiskopf — original designer of the Stadium Course back in 1986 with design teammate Jay Morrish. Weiskopf’s new goal a few years ago was to make TPC Scottsdale not only a refined challenge for the best players in the world but also a fun resort course to be enjoyed year-round by the rest of us, locals and golf travelers alike.
“I’d hounded the Tour ... we needed to upgrade this facility grass-wise to compete against the best of the best in Scottsdale because we have the greatest advantage over anybody,” Weiskopf told reporters and VIPs after the restoration was complete. “That advantage is the fact that people always want to play where the pros play, and this is where we’ve had [now more than 30] Phoenix Opens. They’re always going to come back — they want to fantasize and believe they can make that hole in one, like on 16, that famous hole we have now, that Tiger Woods hit.”
What the Weiskopf-led team accomplished in less than four months in summer of 2014 was nothing short of a miracle shot, finishing on time and under budget. And the tightrope they walked was a master stroke all its own. After all, the Stadium Course was highly regarded as a solid stop on the PGA Tour, drawing record crowds year after year and featuring a dose of drama down the stretch with the risk-reward island-green par-5 No. 15, followed by the atmospheric par-3 16th and the drivable par-4 No. 17 where Andrew Magee carded an ace in 2001.
“Call it a restoration or a redesign, I don’t know what the word is ... but we have a golf course where most of the holes (other than holes 2, 3, 4 and 14) — all those green locations and all those corridors that existed still exist today. What I’m trying to say is that it was really good to start with, but it’s that much better now.”
Yet even with much of the original foundation of the course intact, the playability factor grew exponentially. Corridors were opened up. Overgrowth along the sides of fairways and rough were cleaned out. And tweaks such as the green expansion and new bunkers down the left side of the famed finishing hole added strategy for Tour professionals without translating into brutality for mid-handicappers. And then there’s perhaps the best (and biggest) “tweak” of all — relocation of the 14th green to make the hole a challenging and infinitely more interesting uphill 4-par, which many now consider the new starting gate to one of the better finishing stretches on the PGA Tour.
Of course, as with any Tour changes, a few grumblings were always expected, the most vocal coming from “politically incorrect” Bubba Watson, who criticized the course’s added length. But that hasn’t stopped TPC Scottsdale from serving up excitement ever since the renovation, including one of the most talked-about playoffs of 2016 when Asian superstar Hideki Matsuyama outlasted red-hot Rickie Fowler. Plus, the likes of then-world No. 1 Jordan Spieth cashed a Top 10 finish in 2015, as did Bubba himself.
All of which leads to an obvious conclusion: The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale is now much more than merely home to a sun-fueled party while the pros go low on the famed golf course. It’s a bucket-lister for all golfers. And it’s at the top of our must-plays for any Scottsdale golf visit — whether it be a couple’s getaway, buddy trip or full-field friendliest.
Even so, there’s still one final improvement (originally suggested by Arizona resident and FoxSports writer/reporter Shane Bacon) that could make the experience extra special for golf travelers who journey to Scottsdale to play where the pros play: Leave the “stadium” up on No. 16 year-round to give every resort golfer the thrill of walking through the tunnel with music and crowd noise blaring from the stands to offer a sense of what Phil, Tiger and company hear every time they enter the PGA Tour’s unique Thunderdome. Having played No. 16 with and without over the years (see Brian Oar’s gallery above for what the “everyday 16” looks like, I can personally attest that the hole definitely loses a little of its magic without the “stadium effect” to amp up the adrenaline of an otherwise thrilling final five holes.
Beyond the course, the revitalization of TPC Scottsdale didn’t start and stop at the first tee and 18th green. The clubhouse was overdue for an update as well, and it received more than a customary facelift — and then took the dining experience to the next level with celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s Toro Latin Restaurant and Rum Bar. Combining flavors of South and Central America with a fusion of Japanese- and Chinese-inspired Peruvian cultures, along with Sandoval’s playful “suviche” (a collaboration of sushi and ceviche), the menu at Toro Scottsdale makes it one of the best golf course restaurants we’ve ever encountered — complete with patio dining overlooking the course, McDowell Mountain views and more than 100 different rums to sample before, during and after your meal.
And yet, even with everything TPC Scottsdale has to offer — the course, the tournament, the food — it might still lack true destination status without its stunning next-door neighbor: The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The five-diamond resort is as close to providing a perfect vacation as any mainland American hotel. Rooms and suites are artfully designed with amenities and details that surprise and delight as you uncover them. Dining options range from Sandoval’s La Hacienda (don’t miss the tequila tasting) to Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak. And the Well & Being Spa is among our favorites anywhere in the world, where you can swim in the rooftop adults-only pool, twirl from an Aerial Hammock or soak in the most relaxing multi-jet, varied-pressure waterfall whirlpool “grotto” you’ll ever find.
Even after a few visits, there’s so much more to the Fairmont Scottsdale that we’ve yet to experience — and can’t wait to explore. And now with TPC Scottsdale at the top of its game, there’s no excuse not to head down to the desert to battle the Stadium Course by day and luxuriate like a Roman god the rest of the time.