Playing through the gauntlet of fans at the WM Phoenix Open is tough enough under “normal” circumstances — but this year was anything but. Weather delays meant some players squeezed nearly two rounds in on a single day on Friday. Meanwhile, the crush of fans became so overwhelming that the tournament temporarily closed course gates to ticket-holders on Saturday. It was wild — and while freewheeling and raucous fan behavior has long been a hallmark of the WMPO, some observers felt this year’s edition crossed the line.
You can count Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson among the unamused.
After playing 33 holes on Friday to complete his weather-delayed first and second rounds, Johnson teed off of No. 10 on Saturday afternoon to begin his third round. By the time he reached the mass of shouting fans on 18, it was nearly dark. But the fans weren’t shouting for the players on the putting green. Instead, they were using their phones to film tired tournament attendees on their way off the course, many of whom inadvertently slipped on the muddy hillsides next to and behind the 18th green, soiling their clothes, while the delighted gallery cheered and jeered.
Johnson surveyed this scene, and watched his playing partners finish putting from the elevated bridge between 18 and the clubhouse before striding to the first hole, his 10th of the day, where, once his group was on the green, the horn finally blew to signal the end of play on Saturday due to darkness.
Given what Johnson had witnessed and likely endured on Friday and Saturday, perhaps it’s no surprise that his frustrations ultimately boiled over on Sunday morning, when he confronted a fan in the gallery.
“Don’t sir me! Somebody said it,” Johnson said. “I’m just sick of it. Just shut up.”
Johnson fired rounds of 70-70-70-71 to finish T60 at TPC Scottsdale, and he wasn’t the only player who was unhappy with this year’s tournament experience. After his final round, AZCentral Sports reporter Theo Mackie asked Johnson to elaborate on his feelings.
“This tournament has been inappropriate and crossed the line since I’ve been on Tour and this is my 21st year,” Johnson told Mackie. “I don’t have to play if I don’t want to but I keep coming back.”
Johnson, who has played the WM Phoenix Open 15 times, said the reason he returns is that he likes the greens at TPC Scottsdale. But he also said this year’s experience has him reconsidering another return.
“At some point — I don’t know what the line is, but you have people falling out of the rafters, you have fights in the stands. It’s to the point where now, how do you reel it in? Because it’s taken on a life of its own,” Johnson said. “I think the Thunderbirds probably need to do something about it. I’m assuming they’re ashamed. Because at some point, somebody’s either gonna really, really get hurt or worse. You’ve got a woman falling down 20 feet.
“I don’t have any idea of if I’m gonna come back or not,” Johnson continued. “You’re hitting me at a very emotional point right now so if I were to say if I’m gonna come back, I’d probably say no. But at the same time, I have no idea.”
Why emotional? Mackie asked.
“Because I just played 54 holes in two days and I’m beat,” Johnson replied. “And extremely — I’m done. I’m done with it. I’m done with everything.”
While the Thunderbirds issued a lengthy statement on Sunday (read it here) explaining their decision to close the gates on Saturday, fan behavior — and how to better control it in the future — was not addressed. But given the backlash by players, media and paying attendees in the tournament’s aftermath, the pressure is on to makes some changes.