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Playing TPC Scottsdale from the tips

What happens when a mid-handicapper plays a PGA Tour course – it might not be pretty

by Crai S. Bower

I didn’t want to be that guy, so I asked our caddie to inform the rest of my foursome on the first tee at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course that I will be playing from the tips for a humor piece.

Without the grandstands and the 20,000 raucous fans, the par-3 16th is a very average hole. (Photo by An Pham/Experience Scottsdale)

What I didn’t know at the time was that a pair was already planning to play from 7,262 yards. The other single agreed as well.

And so, instantly I was that guy, the golf writer who identifies himself at the start of the round and then annoys his group with anecdotes about this or that links course in Scotland, what Rickie Fowler is really like, and how awesome it is to watch the U.S. Open from the press-only areas, reliably the best vantage points on the course.

One player in our group, Riley, had every right to play from the back, birdieing the 490-yard par-4 14th and eagling the “drivable” 332-yard 17th (though it took a 100-foot putt to do so), on his way to a 1-under 70. (He would have shot 69 or 68 but I was that guy who jinxed him on the 18th tee by asking about his score.) Okay, so Riley’s a scratch golfer.

And here I must tell you that I am not a scratch golfer, which is why I thought it would be amusing to play from the pro tees on a course that was already synonymous with absurdity, like building a 20,000-person arena around an otherwise benign par 3, the infamous 16th.

The 16th has accomplished what not even Scottsdale local Gary McCord could pull off – getting today’s buttoned-up PGA Tour pro to chill out and have some fun, if only for 162 yards. The arena is so imposing on TV I assumed it was permanent.

The par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale is must-see golf.

In fact, scores of workers begin constructing the stands on September 1, four months before the Waste Management Phoenix Open takes place in early February. The structure also takes two months to dismantle.

I played Royal Portrush two weeks before the 2019 Open Championship (yes, I’m that guy,) and there wasn’t nearly as much construction or control over the course as at TPC Scottsdale in mid-November. I also saw more luxury boxes being built than at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

I even learned that to keep the TPC designation, the adjacent Fairmont Princess Hotel, an amazing sight in its own right, must maintain a 5-Star AAA rating. (El Toro, the clubhouse restaurant, clearly contributes to the esteemed property’s high status. Sushi and tacos on the same menu?! Yes!)

Back to golf. One of my playing companions, also a mid-handicapper in the 12.5 range, says his goal on every hole is to putt for par. He figures he’ll sink a few and also get a birdie look now and then, though more often than not he settles for a bogey.

Very reasonable.

However, par putts also suggest a lack of blow-up holes, the curse of the high handicapper who often purrs along with a decent score only to sabotage the scorecard with a triple or two.

Hole No. 14 at TPC Scottsdale – from the tips, a 490-yard par 4. Who’s kidding who?

Back at the Stadium Course, I found myself putting for par on the first four holes, two 400+ yard par 4s, and a moderate 558-yard par 5, one of only two birdie putts on the day. It wasn’t that the desert air and some altitude suddenly boosted my reliable 230-yard drive another 40 yards, rather it was decent wedge play that allowed me to get close on these “three-shot” par 4s.

At this point, I figured an afternoon of driver/3-wood/wedge would be just fine and I might even break 90. Ha!

I also worried my good fortune at being 3-over through four holes might have more to do with the course setup than my shot-making ability. I was soon proven right. Like Sawgrass, San Antonio, Boston, and others, TPCs are first and foremost designed for professional golf tournaments. Easier starting holes encourage early charges. Those charges electrify the galleries, especially on Sundays. Not that the PHX Open needs much encouragement to energize the crowd, which totals around 750,000 for the week.

No “patrons” to be found here. An insider told me Arizona State students start “pre-funking” before 5:00am in preparation for a day of player-specific songs, catcalls, boos, and general mayhem during what he affectionately called “a daylong tailgate.”

He also intimated that traditional tournament goers (aka “non-5:00am pre-funkers”) can find the whole scene a wee unsettling. Scottsdale is arguably home to the most golfers per capita in the U.S.

Trying to focus on the Sunday leaders’ critical putts while engulfed in a 20,000-human wave can…well, you get the idea. Wasted management, indeed.

The par-5 15th at TPC Scottsdale

There are no throngs to watch my putts slide by the razor-sharp cup edges (I’d forgotten about those), though technically a gallery of people was close by erecting risers of all sizes on seemingly every green and fairway.

No “excuse our mess” signs either, and certainly, no pauses when pounding against poles while the day’s guest, who’s paid somewhere between the twilight rate of $259 and upwards of $400, putts out. Playing on a construction site is somehow part of the thrill. Who wants to play 16 without stands or scaffolding in sight? I know I don’t.

The problem for a medium hitter like myself isn’t that 403-yard first hole or even the 442-yard second – it’s that every hole after the first two, with the exception of 17, will stretch well into the 400s.

I and the poor guy who way back on the first hole issued the “what the heck, I’ll play from back here too” soon figured out that playing one 400+ hole after another is bloody exhausting. We also agreed that any imperfection in our drives compounded the distance issue by several degrees, an obvious equation I know but a painful reality nonetheless.

And don’t get me started about the cacti.

I did catch a break when it came to par 3s, however. I usually judge the distance I want to play by these holes, in that I’ll play to 6,500-yards if I can employ short to medium irons on the par 3s. At TPC Scottsdale, each par 3 had a sign which read, “Professional Tees are Closed in Preparation for the Tournament,” albeit three months away. So, faced with an average distance of 160 yards, I should have had my way with the par 3s.

But then again, who wants to be that guy. Certainly not me.

Crai Bower writes scores of adventure travel articles a year for over 25 publications, including golf stories for American Way, Hearst Media and Journey magazine. He appears regularly on the American Forces Network as a travel commentator. Visit his site at