At Phoenix Open, partying is as fundamental as putting


Now it's time for the serious stuff.

After two weeks in laid-back Hawaii, the PGA Tour visits its annual rock concert in the desert, where ear-rattling crowds and maybe even a few hecklers will greet them. At this week's Phoenix Open at the TPC of Scottsdale, people-watching and partying is as big a part of the day as golf.

"From a player's perspective, I think this is one of the great events on the tour,'' said Phoenix-area resident Tom Lehman, who won the tournament in 2000. "The atmosphere of the Phoenix Open is unlike any other. You usually don't play too many holes where there might be 50,000 people around the green like there are on 18 on Sunday, roaring like they do.''

The tournament traditionally attracts the largest crowds of the year on the PGA Tour. Last year, the numbers were stunning. The tournament was not played the same week as the Super Bowl, which might have had an impact, but more than 500,000 fans were reported to have visited, with a whopping 164,000 on Saturday.

That's more than most tournaments get in a week, and likely more than some get over two years.

Unlike Hawaii, where the crowds are sparse and the atmosphere is congenial, this week is high intensity. And it can be a shock to the system.

"You know they're loud and they're a little crazy,'' said Rocco Mediate, the 1999 Phoenix Open champion. "But if you can't deal with that, don't come here.''

Another unique aspect of the tournament is the TPC's par-3 16th, a short hole where fans are at their rowdy best and aren't afraid to voice their glee or displeasure with any shot. It's not uncommon for a poor shot to be booed. But when there's a good shot, or a hole-in-one -- Tiger Woods provided an ace in 1997 -- the place goes absolutely nuts.

It sure makes for an interesting week.

The Big Question
How will Aaron Baddeley fare after last week's playoff loss?

Before finishing second to Ernie Els on Sunday at the Sony Open, Baddeley needed a sponsor's exemption to get into the Phoenix field. His ranking among last year's Nationwide Tour graduates (10th) was not high enough to get him into the 132-player field.

Now, of course, the sponsor exemption is not necessary. Last week's top-10 finish got him a spot, and Baddeley will attempt to pick up where he left off. Is he drained? Or is he determined to stay on a roll?

Baddeley has plenty at stake. He's now put himself in position to earn an invitation to the Masters.

Five Things To Watch
1. The Phoenix Open has an excellent field, with 20 of the top 30 from last year's money list and 103 of the top 125. And that's without Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

2. Phil Mickelson makes his season debut at a tournament he won in 1996 in a playoff over Justin Leonard. Mickelson, who will defend his title at next week's Bob Hope tournament, will likely play a heavy schedule on the West Coast because he plans to take time off in March due to the birth of his third child.

He comes in having dropped from No. 2 to No. 3 in the World Golf Rankings, and is perilously close to falling to fourth -- Retief Goosen is right on his tail.

3. Is Sergio Garcia really using a belly putter? No doubt Garcia feels he could have done more damage in 2002 had he gotten more putts to drop. He was on the fringe of contention at all four majors, but was unable to get the big putts into the cup. But the long putter? Seems a bit extreme for someone who is just 23 years old.

4. Els is playing at the Singapore Masters this week, where he'll attempt to win his fourth straight start dating to last year. He'll play three of the next four weeks on the European Tour before returning to the United States for the Accenture Match Play Championship.

5. The Champions Tour gets started with the unofficial ConAgra Skins Game in Hawaii, with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin participating. It will be interesting to see Nicklaus on the course again after back problems limited him to very little golf in 2002.



Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com