Longform

Par Tee On!

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At the same time, the organization also does serious career building. By the 1960s, you weren't an up-and-coming Phoenix business WASP if you weren't one of the 55 active Thunderbirds. (There are currently two Hispanic and two African-American members.)

And you weren't a Thunderbird if you didn't know how to have a little fun.

"They had to have the right personality," Goldwater says of the selection process that brought in Perkinson, which ends with a straight majority vote of the active members. "They had to have the time and the desire to work hard, but they had to be good guys, too."

So, as they raised money and built careers, the Thunderbirds also picked up a reputation for tomfoolery, quality parties and, on the darker side, the "summer bachelor" swinging of their fathers and grandfathers.

For their hard work on the Phoenix Open, the Thunderbirds were rewarded with the Bird's Nest, their own exclusive little party tent at the Open. It was the place to be seen. Over the decades, that party tent grew to hold hundreds, then thousands, and now, in its new location, more than 9,000.

On a recent sunny weekday morning, Perkinson cruises the TPC grounds where he's overseeing the construction of grandstands and party tents.

In the mid-1980s, the tournament moved from the Phoenix Country Club to the Tournament Players Club, a stadium course built to accommodate what would become the world's largest golf audiences. Perkinson weaves through massive berms that provide giant earthen grandstands for fans. He pulls up to the steel skeletons of what will become sprawling corporate tents, the money-generating Open equivalent of stadium skyboxes. With grandstands in place, the TPC of Scottsdale comfortably holds more than 150,000 spectators.

The corporate tents and massive crowds are a necessity for the Phoenix Open. That's how the Thunderbirds make their money for charity. And that's how the tournament can continue to be an international advertisement for the Valley.



Without huge crowds and their dollars, the Open would have to turn to a corporate sponsor to pay for the skyrocketing tournament purses. With corporate sponsors, you get corporate tournament names such as the Buick Open.

"Tell me where the Buick Open is played," Perkinson says. "You have no idea where any of these tournaments are played anymore. For a city, that defeats the whole purpose. We want to keep it the Phoenix Open, and to do that, we need lots of people to pay for it."

This year's purse is $4 million, up from $3.2 million in 2000. That's up from $500 in the mid-1930s. This year's winner takes home $725,000.

Perkinson pulls up to the TPC's 16th tee box, now hallowed and infamous ground in the golf world. Construction workers are busy assembling corporate grandstands to the south and west. This year, these grandstands will wrap around to the tee box's north side, which will now include stadium-type seating for the general public.



The new seating may help buffer golfers from some rowdies. But there's little doubt this will remain the loudest and wildest hole of golf in the world.

"We'll have lots of security to grab people if they mess with a golfer before they hit," Perkinson says. "But once the ball is in flight, it will probably still be pretty loud."

Perkinson continues the tour. He drives up a towering berm from which more than 5,000 fans can watch the 7th and 12th tee and the 6th, 11th and 12th greens at the same time, sight lines unheard of on traditional courses. The TPC was built specifically to accommodate huge crowds.

From there, he swoops down a hill and stops to speak to the course's superintendent, Chuck Green, who is surveying the rough along the 7th fairway.

"Are you making it super tough?" Perkinson asks.

"Oh, yeah," Green says.

The TPC crew is thickening up the rough and letting it grow to between four and five inches tall -- more like the maddening thickets of the U.S. Open. In the past few years, the TPC crew has thinned fairways, made the greens harder and faster and the pin positions tougher. The Phoenix Open had gained a reputation for ridiculously low scores. For a greenskeeper, that's like having your daughter called easy.

But as the course toughens, as greens become less conducive to sexy back spins and rough more menacing to long drives, fans see fewer birdies and ESPN highlight-worthy shots. Some Open observers say that has turned a highlight-hungry audience into a bunch of unsatisfied customers.

"Everybody has some kind of theory," he says.

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Robert Nelson