Change coming to WM Phoenix Open after mayhem, safety concerns

Fans make a beer snake at the WM Phoenix Open.

The WM Phoenix Open may have gotten out of hand this weekend.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The rowdiest party in golf is likely to be a little less rowdy next year.

Just days after the WM Phoenix Open had to close the gates to ticket-holders because of overcrowding and safety concerns, the tournament’s organizer said the Tour’s most popular event won’t make the same mistake again.

“We’re going to make changes,” Thunderbirds executive director Chance Cozby said on Golf Channel Monday. “The fine line was really when we felt like we were just at a point on Saturday where our fans could not move around the golf course.”

Centered around the unique stadium on the par-3 16th hole that can seat up to 17,000 spectators, the WM Phoenix Open has developed a raucous atmosphere unlike that of any other Tour event. But that ambiance, coupled with a wild weather week and a likely record attendance — the tournament stopped releasing official attendance numbers in 2018 — led to chaos Saturday.

The conclusion of the second round of the tournament was pushed to Saturday morning due to rain Thursday and frost Friday, leaving the course a muddy mess for fans. Cozby said on the NBC broadcast Saturday that the inclement weather caused the tournament to lose about 3,000 parking spaces.

That didn’t stop hordes of fans from showing to the event, which historically has drawn over 200,000 people for a single day.

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On Saturday, things got to the point where tournament organizers cut fences to create more space for the crowds before ultimately shutting the gates for a time around 2 p.m. to thin out the crowd. A security guard told GOLF’s Claire Rogers that there were concerns about fans getting injured.

“At that moment, the right thing to do was to take the steps that we did,” Cozby said. “The flow of people simply could not flow. And we knew that we needed to make an operational decision at that point to get people off the golf course simply for the safety of the event, the safety of the players, the safety of our fans.”

Alcohol sales were also suspended for the rest of the day. But that didn’t stop numerous videos popping up on social media of fans across the course slipping and sliding in the mud and even brawling.

The disorder carried over to Sunday, too, including some spicy player-fan interactions. Videos of Zach Johnson, Billy Horschel and Jordan Spieth all went viral.

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Johnson said Sunday the Thunderbirds should be “ashamed.”

This came after a fan was injured on Friday after falling from the grandstands on 16.

Cozby said the tournament leadership team met for “five or six hours” Saturday evening to determine how to prevent these events in the future.

“There’s no time off. We’ve got 365 days to fix this,” he said. “I think that you will see a complete operational change of how we manage really our Friday and Saturday, but the entire week.

“The players don’t like what happened on Saturday. Our fans don’t like what happened on Saturday. And so nothing is off the table. You know, we’re going to look at our just general admission ticket exposure and how many are out in the marketplace. We’re going to look at our complete security plan and just how we operate.

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“Saturday at the WM Phenix Open in 2024 is going to end up being a turning point for our tournament and our organization to make our event better.”

Cozby wasn’t ready to specifically detail the changes coming to the event.

“We’ll find out,” he replied when Todd Lewis asked if more security was on the roadmap.

Nick Taylor beat Charley Hoffman in a playoff late Sunday afternoon to win the event, which is one of the longer-running Tour stops. The tournament has been run by the Thunderbirds since 1939 and has seen its status rise in the past few years, winning the PGA Tour’s “Tournament of the Year” award five times since 2014, Cozby noted.

But this isn’t the first time the highly chaotic atmosphere at the Phoenix Open has drawn ire. In 2022, a hole-in-one on the stadium hole by Sam Ryder caused a massive shower of beer, drenching fans and players alike.

Joel Dahmen later revealed he and Harry Higgs were reprimanded by Tour officials that same year when they both took off their shirts at the 16th hole.

The scene was slightly tamer last year as the event was one of the PGA Tour’s Designated events and featured most of the game’s top stars, with Scottie Scheffler winning for the second straight year. The the tournament was replaced in this year’s Signature Event lineup by the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

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