Before the Rocket there was the Buick and its raucous No. 17 crowd
Well before there was stadium seating surrounding the par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale there was No. 17 at Warwick Hills.
Now widely accepted as the wildest, most rowdy hole on the PGA Tour, the 16th at the Waste Management Open has certainly grown into a monster. From the hundreds of rowdy fans that surrounded the green in the early days to today’s college football-like atmosphere where fans heckle players and they soak it all in, it’s anti-golf, really.
But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
It didn’t start there, though. In a way, it was No. 17 at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc that started it all. As the Buick Open grew over the decades, so did the gallery at No. 17, and so did the revelry.
The Tour hadn’t truly embraced the raucous nature of the fans at that hole by the time the event ended in 2009, but it didn’t stop the patrons from making it the signature hole for an event that regularly drew great fields and huge crowds.
In fact, for many years the fan behavior was seen as a negative. After Leonard Thompson won in 1989 he didn’t hold back.
“It's horrible,” Thompson said in a UPI report. “They should do something about it -- and I think they will. … I think they'll do something about it. I don't think they want their tournament ruined by 200 drunks.”
Hall of Famer Lee Trevino was on the same page as Thompson.
“That stuff belongs in the Pontiac Silverdome, not on a golf course,” Trevino said. “It (would) be OK if there was only one group left on the course, but it's really annoying if you're on some other green or fairway.”
However, things have slowly changed around the game of golf. It’s not longer the stuffy, country club-only game of the past. While some players likely don’t love what goes on at No. 16 in Scottsdale, most have embraced it.
From the now-defunct caddie races to the ridicule for a player who misses the green, it’s brought a new element to the game.
That all started at the Buick Open. And while the early days might have had tournament organizers holding their breath, that’s far from the case now. As the course was preparing to set up for last fall’s Ally Challenge, a first-year event on the PGA Tour Champions, officials were using No. 17 as the focal point of the week.
“I think you’re gonna see a ton of energy out at 17 tournament week,” Warwick Hills head professional Doug Brody said. “That’s gonna be the hub of the fan experience and I think there will be new and old fans and it will be something special. I’m predicting it will be as good as any fan experience on the Champions Tour.”
But the Buick Open was more than just one hole.
All the game’s greats played at Warwick Hills. From Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Buick Open regularly drew solid fields. Often, it was played two weeks before the PGA Championship, a perfect spot in the schedule for players looking to tune up for the final major.
Woods and Vijay Singh each won the tournament three times with Woods winning the final event in 2009. Other winners included the likes of Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin and Tom Weiskopf.
The old-style design of Warwick Hills that lended itself to plenty of birdies appealed to the players, and it created a tournament that was a booming success before the economic downturn of the time forced Buick to pull its sponsorship.
A new title sponsor couldn’t be secured, and the tournament’s run ended. However, it is remembered fondly with the hope that the Rocket Mortgage Classic builds a similar following.
“It’s about time,” said David Feherty, the longtime golf analyst and former player. “I always said that Flint was… there are great golf fans all over the United States but nowhere were they as good as they were in Flint. We used to call them the Flintstones. And the Buick Open was one of my favorites to play in. It was one of my favorites to broadcast, as well, at Warwick Hills. Just great people. It’s about time golf is back.”
Multiple winners at Buick Open
Tiger Woods (2009, 2006, 2002)
Kenny Perry (2008, 2001)
Vijay Singh (2005, 2004, 1997)
Julius Boros (1967, 1963)
Tony Lema (1965, 1964)