From Sand to Sensation

“Golf is a game of risk and reward,” says Tom Weiskopf, one of the sport’s sages and award winning course architect, including the Valley’s most famous course at the Tournament Players Club.

His Stadium Course at the TPC embodies just such a philosophy as it makes the Phoenix Open one of the most exciting tournaments on the PGA Tour. As the TPC gears up for the 76th Open, held this January 30th through February 5th, Tom took a break from designing courses in Asia and Argentina to share some stories about the original design of the Course, why he loves the Phoenix Open and his hopes for its future.

For a little perspective, the Phoenix Open’s first rounds were played in the early 1930s.  After alternating between the Phoenix Country Club and the Arizona Country Club, the PGA obtained the land where the Course currently exists, and requested a course be designed especially for this popular event.

 

Tom, himself a pro golfer with 16 PGA Tour titles to his name, was tapped to lead the design of the new course in the mid 1980s. The TPC Scottsdale debuted with the 1987 Phoenix Open.
“The easiest thing to do is to make it the hardest course in the world,” Tom said. “The challenge is to design a course where the average player has a chance, while still challenging the best in the world.”
It’s that challenge that regularly brings out over half a million fans, making it the largest spectator golf event in the world. Some of the game’s most memorable moments happened here, from Andrew Magee’s magical ace on a par-4 in 2001 and Tiger’s recruitment of a few fans in 1999 to move a “loose impediment” (see: boulder).[pb_vidembed title=”Tiger Woods’ fans get to work!” caption=”” url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4lVCF8c5zk” type=”yt” w=”480″ h=”385″]

Fortunately, engineering an attractive, lush course in the midst of an arid desert didn’t prove to be the hydrological marvel one might expect. In fact, as some regulars will likely know, the problem here (and for other nearby courses) is actually too much water – the entire region is in the heart of a giant floodplain. Those elevated gallery views the fans love? Purely flood control. The miles-long berm to the south of the course performs the exact same function on a grand scale – keeping the Airpark and other nearby areas from flooding.

Having resolved the City of Scottsdale’s water management concerns, Tom explained that he was able to concentrate on designing a course suitable for the Open’s rapidly growing fan base that would incorporate his risk-and-reward philosophy. The finishing holes deliver loads of both, Tom says, and many of the tournaments have been decided in front of thousands of fans packing the stadium seats around hole 16, the site of Tiger’s famous hole-in-one, which energized a rowdy (by European soccer standards) audience that has become an unofficial trademark of the Open.

 

While some players may claim the fans gets in the way of “proper” golf, Tom embraces fan enthusiasm. “Where else are you going to play in front of that many people,” he asks. Tom explains that the real issues with the course, and the Open, are related to its design.

Technological improvements in golf ball and club design, as well as increased athleticism amongst the players, have dramatically outpaced the difficulty of the course, changing it from a challenging 71-par design in 1987 to a relatively short design by current standards.

“(A pro golfer) doesn’t want to have to shoot 30-under par to win a championship,” Tom says. Looking back over the last decade, all but two winners were 20-under par or better. In 2001, Mark Calcavecchia won with a 256 – 28 under par. Sure signs that the course is giving up its rewards a little too easily.

Making the course more exciting “wouldn’t take much,” Tom said. “A little rebunkering and length would make it that much better. But I wouldn’t change the last four at all, except for 18, where I’d move the tee up on the back of the dike for just a little more length. That would make for a perfect finish.”

None of these changes, he said, would diminish the excitement for the gallery at all. Talking with Tom, you feel his enthusiasm for the fans similar to their enthusiasm for the game and his course. “Tourism is #1 in Arizona. People come here because they want to play where the pros play. Because of the weather. Because of the restaurants. Because of the cities and what they have offered for the past 25 years.”

“It’s my selfish opinion that the Phoenix Open should be more significant than it is. You’ve got 500,000 people on the ground to watch golf. It should be the Western swing of the World Golf Championships before heading over to Florida. The audience deserves it.”