SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Gary Woodland walked through the tunnel to the Phoenix Open’s 16th hole, the par 3 with an atmosphere more like a football game than a golf tournament. Waiting for him was a young lady in a purple shirt with some game of her own.
After hitting his tee shot, Woodland asked Amy, a Special Olympics athlete, if she wanted to take a crack at it. Absolutely, she said.
Amy made a good swing, but the ball caromed into the greenside bunker. Woodland asked Amy if she wanted to hit the bunker shot.
“I do. I’ve got this,” she told the Phoenix Open’s defending champion.
She sure did. With fans lining the triple-decker stadium that surrounds the hole, Amy thumped the ball onto the green with perfect form, got at read from her new PGA Tour friend and drained the putt. Woodland raised his arms in triumph as the already rowdy practice-round crowd roared.
“I’ve been blessed to do lot of cool things on the golf course, but that is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced,” Woodland said Wednesday. “She was phenomenal and then to step up in front of all the people and the crowd and everything and to hit the shots that she hit and made par, I never rooted so hard for somebody on a golf course. It was an emotional, emotional, really cool experience.”
Woodland had one of his own a year ago at the Phoenix Open.
Winless for nearly five years on the PGA Tour and coming off a difficult summer, Woodland put on a display of power and finesse at TPC Scottsdale to beat Chez Reavie on the first hole of a playoff.
Waiting for him greenside was a surprise visitor: infant son Jaxson with wife Gabby.
Jaxson was born prematurely the previous June after a twin girl was lost in a miscarriage. Seeing him along with finishing off his first PGA Tour victory since 2013 brought a swell of emotions that still resonate as he prepares to defend his title.
“Obviously, I had a great week here last year,” he said. “Great emotions being back, nice to see a lot of the same people.”
Woodland returns to the desert as the defending champion at a tournament that’s become the rowdiest place in golf.
More than a half-million fans stream into TPC Scottsdale each year in a spectacle that’s become known as The Greatest Show in golf. The Phoenix Open drew nearly 720,000 fans throughout the week a year ago to set a PGA Tour record — more than 60,000 than the previous high — including more than 216,000 on Saturday.
Roughly 20,000 fans pack the 16th hole’s stadium, many booze-emboldened to shout catcalls and boo errant shots.
This year’s tournament may get as much attention for a man who won’t hit a shot as the players braving the rowdiness.
Saturday’s third round will be the final broadcast for NBC lead golf analyst Johnny Miller.
Miller announced in September that he’s retiring to spend more time with his family, ending three decades of calling shots the way he sees them.
Miller shot a 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame with 25 career victories, but carved out a memorable second career by saying what he saw without worrying about what the players thought of him.
“He’s always tried to be up front and present the game of golf in an insightful way for the viewers, whether it was educational about swing, helping people understand it or whether it was just being up front from a players’ perspective as to what was going on,” three-time Phoenix Open champ Phil Mickelson said. “I thought he’s done an amazing job for the game of golf.”
Mickelson will be making his record 30th career Phoenix Open start, a run that began when he played at nearby Arizona State, where he won three NCAA championships. Mickelson became an instant fan favorite at the Phoenix Open and has played every year except 1990. He won the tournament in 1996, 2005 and 2013, when he had a putt on the par-4 ninth hole lip out for what would have been a 59.
“Just amazing how many great memories I have when I come back and play here, how, what a great feeling I experience with the crowd and the many memories that I’ve had here,” Mickelson said.
Woodland’s already had one at TPC Scottsdale this week with Amy. He’s hoping for another come Sunday.