If a PGA Tour player is given the chance to tee up a ball and take aim at a hole that’s just 163 yards away, don’t be surprised if he puts a bib around his neck. Pros typically feast on shots such as that. But while conditions at TPC Scottsdale are usually perfect in early February, with warm days and little wind, the 16th hole is unlike any other on Tour. It’s surrounded by grandstands that hold more than 20,000 people, many of whom are “well hydrated” by lunchtime.
For 51 weeks out of the year, the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale is benign, a casual stroll that connects the 15th green to the 17th tee. Then it transforms into the biggest party in golf for the Phoenix Open. Some guys love it, while others steer clear and take the week off. Everyone knows good shots bring cheers and poor shots will be booed mercilessly.
And it can be the scene of some of the craziest celebrations in golf: Pandemonium broke out when a 21-year-old Tiger Woods, playing his first full season on the PGA Tour, made a hole-in-one on 16 in 1997. And in the decades since, the grandstands and theatrics have grown considerably.
Last year the 16th hole played to a stroke average of 2.95, with 44 bogeys and six double bogeys. Gary Woodland, who defends his title this week in the Valley of the Sun, made par on 16 in each of the first three rounds last year before hitting his tee shot 8 feet from the hole Sunday to set up a birdie.
As the table below reveals, the 16th at TPC Scottsdale can be tricky, but historically it is not a brute.
For Tour players, the real challenge of the 16th hole is psychological, but there have not been many data-driven studies analyzing the effects of pressure in golf.
One that did, written by Daniel Hickman of the University of Idaho and Neil Metz of the University of Central Oklahoma, won the 2014 ShotLink Intelligence Award. As Golfweek reported, the research paper, called, “The Impact of Pressure on Performance: Evidence from the PGA Tour,” used ShotLink data collected from 2004 to 2012 to reveal that for every $50,000 increase in prize money a putt on the 18th hole is worth on a Sunday, players are 1 percent more likely to miss it.
“In the 8-, 9- or 10-foot range, we got an almost 2-percent drop (in success) when adding $25,000 worth of pressure to the player’s shot,” said Hickman at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. For example, golfers don’t perform as well on putts that can give them either a solo second-place finish or leave them in a four-way tie for third on Sundays.
Monetary pressure such as that is one thing, but the pressure of performing in front of 20,000 beer-soaked fans is something else. Traditional etiquette dictates that golfers don’t get booed, as do baseball or football players. They don’t get taunted or mocked like hockey players who are forced to sit in the penalty box. At the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, fans occasionally take things too far, but at week-to-week events the scene is fairly tranquil. The 16th certainly is different.
Phil Mickelson, the patron saint of Arizona golf, appears to have embraced the mayhem. PGA Tour stats show Mickelson has played the hole 104 times in competition, hitting the green in regulation 61.5 percent of the time (64 of 104) while making 16 birdies. His average score on the hole is even par, while his career scoring average on 8,296 par 3s in PGA Tour events is 3.06, meaning he is slightly better on No. 16 than par 3s in general.
Lots of pros don’t like the idea of wearing a microphone during tournament rounds, so the idea of getting heart-rate data that could reveal how players handle pressure seems out of the question. But it certainly would be interesting when the crowd revs up.
What we do know is the players who embrace the atmosphere at the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale help make one of the most unique scenes in golf. We don’t have stats to back it up, but it appears they know how to handle the pressure that wild atmosphere creates.