Sunday, February 3, 2008

The 19th Hole: A Super Alternative

The FBR Open takes place on Superbowl weekend each year in Scottsdale, Arizona. This year, Superbowl XLII is taking place at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. In the same weekend, the best of the NFL and some of the best of the PGA Tour converged on the same state. Given that supposedly nearly a billion people see the Superbowl around the world, one would think that the FBR Open would struggle to draw a crowd each year. In reality, that could not be further from the truth.

The event thrown by the Thunderbirds has drawn record crowds again this season. In 2007, the event toppled the 500,000 spectator mark for the week. This year, numbers indicate even higher turnout for the four day event. It is contrary to the logic that golf cannot compete with football – the same logic that lead to the development of the FedEx Cup and the season that ends for all intents and purposes in September.

The FBR Open is proof that golf tournaments can attract huge numbers of fans despite lacking a chart-topping field or the label of a major championship. The par 3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale is often credited for the success of the event. A hole that defines the stadium viewing concept, the 16th can hold nearly 100,000 raucous (and usually drunk) spectators during the day. The fans pass out cheer sheets with information about golfers in each group. They pass judgment on every tee shot with an overwhelming cheer or hiss depending on the quality of the shot. The place is a zoo and there is nothing like it on the PGA Tour. The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass does not even come close.

The concept of the 16th has been so successful that the idea has been employed the world away from Arizona. At the Australian Open this year, organizers decked out their version of the 16th at the Australian Golf Club’s par 3 11th hole. Fans could drink, cheer, and lounge out on the hole while taking in some world class golf. It is hard to argue the success of the event when it is being copied to liven up a struggling tournament.

The FBR Open is not made entirely, though, by the success of the 16th hole. The event draws a ton of local support because the Thunderbirds treat fans right. The entire tournament is a celebration of the community and of golf. At so many PGA Tour venues, the golf course is boring, the players are disengaged, and the fans are asked to simply be a part of the background. That’s not so at the FBR. Fans are the story there and the golfers seem to all respond to it. Some may do so negatively, but for the most part, the players are in love with the tournament.

In recent years, the tournament has faced some issues because of the challenge of being scheduled against the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic. The European Tour event sponsors can pay appearance fees to attract players despite smaller purses. That means that Tiger Woods can make his supposed $4 million appearance fee without any hassle. The Emirates are not shy about opening their wallets to attract the best players and it has paid off in what is now a gem of the European Tour schedule.

Despite this, the fan interest in Arizona has never waned for the FBR Open. In fact, it has thrived. That leads one to believe that fans have a great time at TPC Scottsdale regardless of who is playing. Again, that compels the explanation that it is because the fan experience is so enjoyable that the golf almost becomes secondary to the atmosphere. That then is the challenge to golf tournaments around the country that are struggling with attendance because they cannot attract the best players on the Tour.

Jack Vickers, founder of the now defunct International in Colorado, shut down his event because he realized he was not a part of the Tiger Tour and could not continue without his support. Respectfully, though, Mr. Vickers was wrong. He could compete. He was looking for the wrong answer, though. He had to make the experience of attending the tournament so enjoyable and fan friendly that the spectators would not mind watching JB Holmes win instead of Tiger Woods.

The success of the FBR cannot be mimicked overnight. It takes years of consistent delivery to fans of a fun time over four days that drives people to attend. Quaint golf tournaments are fine and quiet galleries are respectful for the players. Those same things are the death of smaller events. Tournaments need to learn to step outside of what is the mold of today’s professional golf events. They need to take a chance on making golf an interactive experience instead of a passive one. Until they do that, though, they will just be wondering why they cannot seem to replicate what happens in the American desert every February.


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