During the final round of last year’s WM Phoenix Open Harry Higgs made an unremarkable par on the short par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, then turned to the assembled gallery and … lifted his shirt over his head. Not to be outdone, his playing partner, Joel Dahmen, completely tore off his polo. Instead of gentle claps or gasps of shock, the pair received a boisterous roar and a veritable meteor shower of beer, beer cans—some full—and water bottles.
On the same day, Sam Ryder and Carlos Ortiz made holes-in-one on 16, just like Tiger Woods did in 1997. Woods received a raucous standing ovation that day but nothing like the all out mayhem Ryder and Ortiz witnessed. Even players who didn’t make an ace whipped the crowd into a frenzy. At times, play stood still for up to 10 minutes while workers cleared debris. None of this should have come as a surprise.
The Phoenix Open calls itself “the greatest show on grass” and is sometimes referred to as the Wasted Management Open (which may be why it officially changed from the Waste Management to the WM Phoenix Open in 2022). The 16th hole, long fueled by an adjacent 48,000-square-foot bar and restaurant known as the Bird’s Nest, has been the rowdiest spot in golf for years, and as the grandstands around the hole have grown into a full enclosure that seats 15,000, it’s become golf’s version of Thunderdome. Similar seating has sprouted at the 17th and 18th holes, which have begun to pick up the vibe.
While undoubtedly fun, last year’s scene was also dangerous, so the tour and the tournament organizers have mandated that all beverages served at 16 will arrive in plastic cups. A wise move, since this year the already electric tournament atmosphere will be supercharged, as the greater Phoenix area also hosts Super Bowl LVII, which will kick off about 30 miles away at State Farm Stadium shortly after the final putt drops.
Having the Super Bowl in town hasn’t hurt sponsorships or suite sales, Pat Williams, the tournament chairman, said in a recent phone interview. The dual sports showcases add energy and excitement, with plenty of high rollers to go around. “That will be quite a day for metro Phoenix,” he said. “All the eyes of the sporting world will be on us.”
Those eyes will spy a golf tournament that, appropriately, has the feel of an NFL game, but the rambunctious, bordering-on-rude behavior will obscure what are perhaps more relevant facts about the Phoenix Open: It brings in a ton of money, it has given more to charity than perhaps any golf event and it’s run by a somewhat mysterious “club.”
The Thunderbirds formed in 1937 when the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce appointed a five-member committee to enhance tourism. The committee soon became a separate group, expanded to 55 members, and adopted its now-familiar name. In 1939, the group’s first leader, Barry Goldwater Sr., decided to revive a golf tournament that had run from 1932 to 1935. In all, the Phoenix Open has taken place 87 times, crowning champions from Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson to Arnie and Jack to Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka.
Along the way the Thunderbirds evolved. At any given time, there are still only 55 members, and while their names remain unpublished, their identity is not exactly secret. Members wear large silver T-bird pendants, and some are identified on public tax documents. When members reach 45 years old, they automatically convert from “active” to “life” status, although life members often continue to participate in planning and running initiatives. The whole operation is overseen by a Big Chief and a Thunderbird Council, and a select committee hands out silver beads to the most industrious among them.
That may come off as slightly odd and Masonic, but the Thunderbirds have proven adept at running the tournament, turning the Phoenix Open into one of the most popular and lucrative on tour, especially since moving to the sprawling TPC Scottsdale course in 1986. The week-long festivities around the Open include two pro-ams (one featuring celebrities), four post-golf concerts at the Bird’s Nest (Wednesday through Saturday) and another concert on the 16th hole Saturday, which this year will feature Maroon 5.
Single general admission tickets cost $75 a day, though packages run all the way up to Skybox Loges overlooking the 16th hole that come with 80 suite credentials and 40 general admission tickets a day, plus other amenities, at $175,000 for the week. The Thunderbirds stopped tracking exact attendance a few years ago, but during the Monday-to-Sunday window, the event attracts 500,000 to 700,000 visitors.
“The tournament is incredibly capital-intensive to run, to build the structures, to support the golfers and the community, but we’re confident we can turn a lot of that top-line revenue into charitable dollars back to the community, which is our primary goal,” Williams said.
Like almost all PGA Tour events, the WM Open is a 501c3. The details vary from tournament to tournament, but in general, the tour and the tournament organizers divide the income—from TV, sponsorships and partnerships, ticket sales and concessions—and put it towards the purse and all the expenses associated with the event. The host’s remaining proceeds go to charity. The tour puts total contributions from all its events over the years at $3.3 billion, and Phoenix is among the top givers.
According to the tour, only six events have contributed more than $100 million, and the Phoenix Open is one of them, registering a total of $176 million over the course of its 88-year-history, almost all of which has gone to local causes—everything from the USO to high school golf teams. The numbers picked up dramatically after the formation of Thunderbird Charities in 1987, and the tour says the WM Open has given $110 million since Waste Management took over as sponsor in 2010.
Williams said that the COVID-hampered tournament of 2021 distributed $3 million, while last year’s event gave away $10.5 million, about 9.5% of gross revenue. That means the event took in about $100 million in 2022.
Beyond the Phoenix Open, the Thunderbirds also sponsor separate junior, college and senior tournaments, and along with the American Junior Golf Association, run the Thunderbird International Junior at Grayhawk Golf Club. The group also supplies clubs and other equipment to any high school in Arizona that requests the help.
“The Thunderbirds are an organization full of heart, and though we all host and execute one of the most successful and popular golf events of the year, we fully understand that the community impact is why we do it,” said Derrick Hall, the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a Thunderbird member.
This year, it’ll be quite a party in The Valley as the WM dovetails with Super Bowl LVII week, giving attendees a wide range of diversions to pursue, from an ESPN tailgate downtown to a Machine Gun Kelly concert at the course. The two events also overlapped in 2015, and other than the inevitable traffic snarls, everything ran smoothly.
“We’re excited that the Super Bowl’s here,” Williams said. “We’re excited that we think our crowds will be bigger. We’re prepared for it. And ultimately if we get more people in the door, we’re going to give more money back to charity.”
Of course, past results do not ensure future success. The Chiefs and Eagles are slated to start on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. MT, and the tournament is expected to conclude about a half hour earlier. But last year it took Scottie Scheffler three playoff holes to seal the win. If that happens Sunday, by the time the tournament ends, Rihanna may have already started warming up her vocal cords.