STREAKING IS WRONG -- let's be clear about that up front. It's boorish, infantile, and it always ends badly. That being said, sometimes a legend comes along who pulls off a marathon streak so improbable, so filled with performative flourishes and so in keeping with the whole sloshy drunken gestalt of its place -- the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the only fully enclosed hole on the PGA Tour, aka the Coliseum -- that we are reminded why rules are meant to be broken.
He emerged Friday from somewhere near the tee box, nude except for a Speedo, with "19TH HOLE" painted on his back and an arrow pointing downward, and then he made a beeline straight down the middle of the fairway like he'd been smacked with a 9 iron through the manicured cactus garden, 180 yards to the cup. Already he'd defied the odds, but then he grabbed the pin from the hole and performed a kind of lap dance with no lap. He dropped it low, brought it back, dropped it low, brought it back. The bleachers -- packed since 7 a.m. -- roared for their Maximus. Finally one security guard snapped out of his stupor, but the streaker juked past him and into the players' tunnel to the 17th hole, where we all assumed he got pancaked by the Scottsdale Police.
Except, of course, no one outside the Coliseum knew what he'd just done, and the fact is that a dude in a Speedo kind of blends in around this particular golf hole. He kept running. All the way down the 17th fairway, halfway down 18, then jumped into the pond and enjoyed a brief refreshing swim, danced on the giant WM logo in the water and then finally, when he was good and ready, he surrendered to the authorities. So yes, streaking is wrong, let's be clear about that. But here at the 16th hole at the Waste Management -- and maybe only here at 16 -- it'd feel wrong if someone didn't streak.
THE 16TH HOLE at the Waste Management, which really is what locals call this tournament, that or the WM, is like an oasis of Coors Light in the Desert Southwest. It's a total anomaly on the PGA Tour, the one place where golf's whispered tones and dignified applause get flushed right down the port-a-potty, replaced by undignified trolling and ambitious cosplay. Over the past quarter-century, the 16th has cemented its reputation as "the greatest party on grass." This is golf at its Happiest Gilmore.
Before players enter the Coliseum through a tunnel from the 15th green, they're greeted by a cheerful sign on the facade that reads "Welcome to the Loudest Hole on Earth," but it feels more like a warning. The 16th hole at the WM is the ultimate place in golf to hit the shot of a lifetime, as Sam Ryder did last year here when he became only the 10th player ever to ace the hole, setting off a Category 5 beer-icane from all three luxury suite tiers and every corner of the bleachers. But it might be the worst hole in the world to dump one into a sand trap. (There are four sand traps on 16.)
"Guys would be lying if they told you they don't think about 16 before they get there," Ryder said before this year's tournament. He compared the environment to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke -- hostile fans right on top of you, so close you can smell their beer breath, looming and listing overhead. "You can't not think about it. You can hear it from every point on the golf course. You know it's coming."
No one at this entire tournament has a more futile job than the guys holding the QUIET PLEASE signs at the 16th hole. It's impossible to silence drunk people in silly costumes. They came here specifically to be incorrigible. Golf typically doesn't do silly costumes -- most fans tend to show up dressed like the players -- but the bleacher creatures at 16 are the exception. Founding fathers with itchy white wigs. Royal Canadian Mounties. Prison inmates. The Seven Dwarves. A bunch of college bros from USC dressed as a bunch of bananas. A bunch of college bros from Pittsburgh dressed as an army of Minions, plus Gru. A bunch of college bros from Minnesota dressed as Mario Brothers -- Mario and Luigi, who were in rough shape, and Wario, the spokesman of the group. ("Good luck," a woman nearby warned as I approached them. "I don't think Luigi can form words.") So many people in head-to-toe green Waste Management swag -- WM pants, WM blazers, WM ties, the entire WM capsule collection. At least one jersey of every player who has ever played for the Eagles or the Chiefs. The fans up front arrived outside the course before 4 a.m. to secure these seats, when it was below 50 degrees, very windy, and dark, so they pretty much had no choice but to drink heavily.
Which is why the morning hours are when the 16th-hole bleachers are at their spikiest -- before the desert heat turns their brains to soup. They're already smashed, but still sharp, emboldened and brimming with destructive energy. They boo every bad shot. Imagine how demoralizing it must be to get heckled at 7:42 a.m. Golf is already cruel enough. And drunk people are very fickle. After a solid tee shot early Friday morning, Rickie Fowler was greeted with cheers of "Big d--- Rick!" which he acknowledged with a sheepish tip of his club, but then up on the green he left a feckless putt well short of the hole, and immediately the bleachers flipped on him and turned the "big" cheer into a "small" jeer. Sometimes they flipped within the span of a single shot. Tom Kim's second-round approach drew a roar when it landed a few feet from the cup ... then turned into a vicious BOOOOO as the ball rolled off the green onto the fringe.
I actually can't share many of the things one overhears in the bleachers at 16 because this is a Disney company, but suffice to say the locals will seize on any opportunity to point out something phallic or sexually suggestive, and this was golf. No one got a bigger cheer all weekend, in fact, than the greenskeeper whose job it was to dig up the morning's pin placement by pumping a two-foot cylindrical tool into the ground.
But they also have moments of diabolical genius, when 16 earns its reputation for being more than just the greatest party on grass but also a hole so fearsome that lots of professional golfers skip this tournament entirely because of it. As the sun rose behind the bleachers on Friday and Jon Rahm, who played collegiate golf down the road in Tempe at Arizona State, was lining up a birdie putt, the fans noticed that the sun was casting their shadows onto the green, directly in between Rahm's six-foot path to the hole, so they began madly waving their arms to create a shadow frenzy in his eyeline. It looked like he was putting through a wildfire. Naturally, he missed. Even better, Rahm was still finishing up his first round because of a frost delay on Thursday morning, meaning -- lucky guy! -- he'd have to come back through 16 again before sunset. Two turns on the Coliseum floor in one day.
FOR THE FOURTH TIME in their overlapping histories, the Super Bowl and the Waste Management were held on the same weekend in the Phoenix area -- the biggest televised sporting event in America versus the greatest party on grass, separated by just 40 miles of urban sprawl -- and according to locals, at least, the 16th remains undefeated. The Super Bowl is one of those bucket-list items that turns out to be more fun to cross off than to watch in person. It's a made-for-TV event, more airless live than you'd expect, with no equivalent of the bleacher creatures. The Super Bowl also has no sense of humor; the security over at the University of Phoenix Stadium would've flattened that streaker immediately. Give that knucklehead some credit, he knew which party to crash.
The greatest party on grass builds in intensity through the week, cresting on Saturday, when about 20,000 people cycle through the 16th hole alone and nearly 300,000 pack the course. Saturday is when the local Phoenix stars come out. The NBA's Chris Paul and Devin Booker and WNBA star Brittney Griner put in appearances near the tee box this year (though they were smart enough to not go anywhere near the bleachers). The vibes around the hole get more serious Sunday -- there is, after all, a $20 million purse on the line, a huge boost from $6 million last year after the PGA designated the WM one of its eight "super tournaments." The tournament's upgraded status was enough to draw Rory McIlroy to 16 for only the second time in his career. (He parred it on all four tries.) Plus, these fans have also been going hard all week, and there are Super Bowl parties to rest up for. Sunday is a boozier-than-usual brunch.
But as Thursday tipples to Friday, and Friday funnels into Saturday, the crowds increasingly show up dressed to party. A man named Tommy Elliot, who I met in one of the posh skyboxes, was here with friends for his 40th birthday, and he'd flown all the way from Luxembourg, where he'd just moved from Hong Kong. He could've gone anywhere in the world to celebrate his big 4-0, and he chose the greater Phoenix area in order to fulfill his dream of experiencing the 16th hole at the Waste Management. "This is the pinnacle," he told me. "It's been on my agenda for a long, long time." So far it has lived up to expectations. He got a great video of the streaker. "I mean, how can you not know about the 16th hole?"
The 16th at the WM has been one of the most iconic destinations in sports for going on 25 years, but it was largely a golf-world phenomenon until Ryder's third-round hole-in-one last year -- and its torrential aftermath -- spilled the secret out into the open. Ryder wound up finishing tied for 23rd, seven shots behind the tournament winner, Scottie Scheffler, but let's be real. The winner of the tournament was Sam Ryder.
"It was almost like a blackout moment," Ryder said a few days before heading back to Phoenix for the 2023 event. "I don't really remember my caddie jumping on me" -- that did happen -- "but one of the things I do remember was my lip trembling, like, uncontrollably." The TV cameras were right in his face, and for a moment he was mortified that this glorious occasion would be marred for everyone by the sight of his lip doing this weird twitching thing. By then the beer shower had already begun, like a waterworks display outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas, drenching the tournament officials, the players, the caddies, and pelting the green with so many cans and plastic cups that 15 minutes of urgent waste management was required before play could resume and the last member of Ryder's group could finish putting. The Coliseum had gone full Roman.
"We are covered in beer, and other liquids I believe," announcer Amanda Balionis Renner declared from her position on the fringe beyond the tee box. "Everyone is going insane. We might have a slight rain delay." By the time it was over, the green looked like the front yard of an ASU frat house on the morning after a party. When Ryder finally came to his senses, "I just remember the deafening noise and feeling the adrenaline rush where it felt like my heart was gonna stop," he said. "Honestly, I've still got goosebumps just thinking about it."
The ace broke a seven-year drought at 16 -- the first hole-in-one since Francesco Molinari did it in 2015. And then just 33 tee shots later, during the final round, it happened again. Carlos Ortiz, 31, of Guadalajara, Mexico, who shortly after switched allegiances to the LIV Tour, performed the encore. This time in the footage you can see WM officials scramble toward the middle of the tee box to escape the downpour they now know is coming. Ortiz wasn't so lucky, he told the media afterward. "I got actually nailed pretty hard on the back with a beer can." The live broadcasters also had nowhere to hide. Said one announcer, reporting gallantly through challenging conditions: "Looks like we're going to need another cleanup on 16."
THE LEGEND OF THE 16TH HOLE at the WM begins in 1997, long before Waste Management entered the picture, when the tournament was still called the Phoenix Open, and like so many things in golf's modern era, it begins with Tiger Woods.
"I believe I was on the 13th green," Mark Calcavecchia told me from his home in Jupiter, Florida, where he was recovering from knee replacement surgery, "which is still -- I mean, you got all of 14 and all of 15, and the 150 some yards of 16. So I'm over a half a mile away. But we heard this just unbelievable roar. It was probably the loudest roar I've heard ever on a golf course, even from that far away. And of course automatically we all thought, well, somebody made a hole-in-one on 16. And then we found out just a few minutes later, it was Tiger."
He was 22 years old, in his first full season on the tour, and in less than two months he would win the Masters by 12 strokes, the official start of Tigermania and the greatest decadelong run in golf history. The unofficial start, though, was that ace at 16 in Phoenix on Jan. 25, 1997. If you go back and watch the clip, what's most startling is how much nothing there is around the hole. Just a mass of spectators on the grass behind the green and open desert behind them.
"There was a TGI Fridays behind the tee box, but that's about it," said Calcavecchia, who won the tournament three times. "No risers or anything." Certainly no tiers of skyboxes. Just a row of grandstands down the right fairway and a nice hill behind the green where spectators would lounge and picnic.
In the hyperlapse version of the 16th hole's architectural history, the first level of skyboxes arrive the very next year after Woods' ace, in 1998, replacing the strip of grandstands down the right fairway. Within five years, the boxes run the length of the fairway, and risers show up behind the green, and every open gap is filled with a sea of fans. By 2008, the skyboxes are now three stories high and flanking both fairways, and by 2009, the green looks like a small patch of grass at the bottom of a thunderdome. The Coliseum is now complete. The hole is now enclosed. The footprint hasn't grown much in the decade since then because, as one tour official told me, "We've built about as much as we can with the fire officials." The only direction left to go is up. The Coliseum is basically a builder kit by this point, but construction must begin in October in order to be ready for early February; they start tearing it down again as soon as the final group plays through on Sunday, but it'll be two months before 16 is open desert again for the summer.
From overhead, the 16th looks shaped more like a puffy exclamation point than a coliseum, or if you prefer to stick with the waste management theme, kind of like a urinal. It's both luxurious and almost comically flimsy. The design aesthetic bears a resemblance to Churchill Downs, with its stacked tiers and ornate white arches, only the facades at 16 are made of mesh netting. If you're in line for the bathroom and you miss seeing a hole-in-one, you'll feel it. The whole structure wobbles even after long makes. In theory, the tournament organizers could build a permanent structure here, but then they'd have to meet all kinds of building codes, they'd have to install actual bathrooms, plumbing, septic -- a waste management nightmare.
For now, the Coliseum has 299 total guest suites, including a handful named "The $63,000 Skybox" -- that's really what it's called on the official WM tournament website: The $63,000 Skybox. (Last year, they were called the $55,000 Skyboxes.) This income bracket of the 16th hole society rolls in around 11 a.m., long after the sun is up and the breakfast scramble and thin-sliced brisket stations are cranking out plates. The $63,000 Skyboxes are located beyond the green, close enough for the golfers to overhear financial advice, and they're stocked with TVs, flower arrangements and, in one box, complimentary jars of WorldClass Atamisqui honey from Argentina. (Really good honey.)
Conveniently, the priciest skyboxes are located right next to the bleachers, and so once the boxes start to fill up with corporate clients, it's time for the lighthearted class warfare to begin. The only people at 16 who get it worse than players are the "rich people" in the skyboxes, as one of the banana bunch called them. "Hey, people in the boxes," one bleacher bum shouted, prompted by nothing at all, "f--- you!" Somehow they all zeroed in on the same single victim across the way who made the mistake of wearing a blue shirt, and they started chanting at him, "That box sucks! That box sucks!" They would make repeated demands of box occupants to chug their beers, booing them lustily if they refused, and even more lustily if they tried and failed. It keeps going like this for hours until the hammering sun makes them all sleepy, and by that point, hardly anyone in the skyboxes is watching golf, anyway, they're watching each other. Once they've had all they can eat, and all they can drink, or at least all they should, the sporting-event portion of the 16th hole scene is over, and now it's time for the mergers and acquisitions to commence.
At this point you might be wondering: Why this hole? What's so special about it? Nothing. There is nothing special about the 16th hole at the WM. The background landscape of the McDowell Mountains is lovely, but it's not Pebble Beach. The hole itself is an ordinary par 3. Sometimes the legend of Tiger Woods can get overblown, but in this case, the rise of the 16th hole, the greatest party on grass, really was all because of him. Once it had an origin story, its party reputation started gathering its own momentum and became a self-propelling phenomenon, like a hot night club that gets hotter because it's hot, and soon the 16th was famous for being the one hole in golf that wasn't about the golf. And of course, the omnipresent possibility of an ace -- of participating in an eruption like the one Woods triggered, and that Ryder and Ortiz experienced just last year -- has the same prayerful draw that makes people buy lottery tickets. Hey, ya never know.
And on the exceptionally remote chance that it did happen again this year (it didn't), tournament officials had learned their lesson: no beer cans at 16 this time. All alcoholic beverages would be poured into commemorative Waste Management-green 16th-hole cups, an exercise in branding that also doubled as a security device. If you threw your cup, the beer would tip out and the cup would just flutter away.
"It was awesome seeing that beer shower last year," an official told me, "but we were like, 'OK, that can't happen again.'"
This year, tournament officials put up signs all over the bleachers that succinctly explained the new law of the land: You Throw, You Go.
THE OFFICIAL START of a day in the bleachers at 16 is at 7 a.m., with a half-mile sprint from just inside the TPC Scottsdale gate to the entrance at 16. "It's further than you think," Batman told me. His name by day was Shane Premer, 21, and he and his pals from the University of Southern California had arrived at 4:30 a.m. "We went on runs together to train for it." Minutes later, one of our Founding Fathers offered me my first shooter of the day, something called a Pink Whitney. "It's pink vodka, like maybe lemonade?" he said, looking down at some empty Pink Whitney nip bottles on the cart path. "Honestly I don't know." Next up in the queue was the prison gang, six friends from USC in orange uniforms, which they chose "because it was the cheapest costume with the most quantity," one of them explained. Also, it felt apt, he said. "You're about to see a jailbreak."
Security had hemmed the early risers into a narrow column stretching back hundreds of people and a full block beyond the entrance to the course. Then without warning they yanked the gates aside, opening a maw at the front, and the stampede was on. Official sunrise was still nearly 15 minutes away, and the air was as whipping cold as it was Thursday, when the start of the tournament got pushed back by frost for an hour and 40 minutes, and I nearly got trampled by three college-aged women in matching gold puffer jackets, black miniskirts and white cowboy boots.
Inside, the Super Mario Brothers had established a beachhead in the front row and began work on a massive cup snake, only to have it pointed out for confiscation by a security guard on the green -- the same security guard who wound up later getting deked by the streaker. Mario, Luigi and Wario didn't let up on him after that, and eventually all three were escorted out of the Coliseum. The bananas and the Minions, meanwhile, kept trolling each other from adjacent front rows, or rather the bananas kept fighting and the Minions kept trying to respond with love, but this seemed to only wind up the bananas even more. I asked the bananas why they chose bananas, and the head banana looked at me like I'd just asked him something bananas. "Gwen Stefani's hit single 'Hollaback Girl,'" he replied, which came out in 2004 when these children were 3. "She said: This blank is bananas!" (He actually said blank.) "B-A-N-A-N-A-S bananas!" Now all six of them were singing. "This blank is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S bananas!" Then they asked for permission to swear, and I said no because Disney.
All that's left to do before play begins is drink and troll, and so the bilious energy gathers until the unfortunate first few pairings arrive, like wolves to the slaughter. "You feel the nerves, trust me," Calcavecchia said. "Luckily, I think I only really missed that green two or three times in my career, but you're nervous as heck because you do not want to get booed. You're embarrassed, you're mad, you get on the next tee and you're like, Screw that hole."
On Saturday morning this year, all three players in the first group hit their tee shots into the sand, and the venom seemed to escalate each time. No one got it worse, though, than poor Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who carded a dreaded double-bogey on Friday and suffered dearly for it. Fans in the bleachers are known for doing their research, digging up stuff about your life, hunting Instagram for the name of an ex-girlfriend, but sometimes the simplest lines can be the most psychologically insidious. Bezuidenhout hit his tee shot into the front-left sand trap and got pelted with boos. Then he hit his second shot out of the bunker over the green and onto the back of the fringe, and the boos turned all-caps. "Get off the tour!" an angry voice growled out like a chainsaw. As Bezuidenhout slinked over to his ball, things got personal: "Why do you walk like that?" It wasn't even 8 a.m., and people were mocking his gait.
His chip to save par wasn't close. "BOOOOO!" He missed his putt for bogey. "BOOOOOOOOOO!" Finally he tapped in for five and the barrage started before the ball hit the bottom of the cup, louder than their loudest boos yet. "DOUBLE BOGEY! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap] DOUBLE BOGEY! [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap]." The chanting didn't stop until they'd chased Bezuidenhout up through the tunnel to 17, out of the Coliseum and into therapy.
WOULD IT SURPRISE YOU to hear that lots of golfers on the PGA Tour hate the 16th hole at the Waste Management?
"I know some players who've said they'll never play here again because of it," Calcavecchia told me. "It's not for everyone." The ace on 16 was the most thrilling shot of Ryder's life, but it wasn't so much fun for Brian Harman, one of his playing partners on the hole, who had to wait an eternity to finish putting on a beer-soaked green. He was trying to win a golf tournament here.
"He was starting to get a little bit annoyed, I think," Ryder remembers, "because he was like, 'OK, like, am I gonna be able to hit? What's going on here?'"
Even Woods had to stop playing the Waste Management within a few years of his historic ace because the crowds at 16 got too unhinged for him. In order to keep the hordes at bay, he was walking up to the green flanked by three security guards. In 2001, someone in the bleachers threw an orange at him, and that was that. He didn't come back to the tournament for 14 years. Bezuidenhout might think twice next year. At this point in its legend, the players on the tour self-select. If they show up for the Waste Management, they know what they're getting into. Plenty of players this year hyped up the crowd as they walked up the fairway; a few of them even encouraged louder boos, as if to get their money's worth. Scheffler, who won the WM last year and won it again this weekend, certainly appears comfortable here. Rahm lost his sunrise battle with the bleacher creatures Friday morning -- but then he birdied it that afternoon and became a beloved ex-Sun Devil once again. And maybe it was just the hole-in-one talking, but Ryder says he loves playing 16.
"If I was a college kid going to Arizona State, I would be right there with 'em -- I'd have my buddies up there and maybe be doing the same thing," he told me. "So let them have their moment and have fun. And if I'm on the butt end of that joke for 10 or 15 minutes while I play the hole, then so be it. Let them have that, too. I still get to play golf and compete for a large purse."
Plus it's not as though the 16th at the WM has become some trendsetter in golf as entertainment, the first in a future wave of raucous par-3 arenas, a paradigm shift in how we experience the sport. That hasn't happened yet. The Coliseum at 16 remains one of a kind in golf. This should be taken as a clear message, Calcavecchia said.
"Once a year is enough."