When you think ‘golf entertainment’, the 16th-hole stadium during the Waste Management Phoenix Open is right up any list.
Players have often referred to the moment when they emerge from the tunnel and stepped on to that tee box as what it must have felt like entering the Colosseum as a gladiator.
During my time living in Scottsdale, I teed it up at the pre-qualifier for what has since been dubbed ‘the funnest week in golf’ and although I finished two shots outside the number, the tournament week certainly lives up to its cult billing as just that. From the dozens of daily activities in the hospitality villages, to live bands playing long into the night and the iconic 30 000-seater stadium surrounding the 16th, it’s no wonder they get upwards of 500 000 spectators through the gates every year.
After failing to qualify for that PGA Tour event in Phoenix, a Web.com Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour) event rolled into town. I was competing on a pay-to-play circuit called the Gateway Tour and despite a couple of good finishes earlier in the season, my last four results were: missed cut, missed cut, missed cut and 47th at the Tucson State Open. The downside of the 47th place was that only the top 40 players got paid, so the two extra nights of accommodation and meals meant I would have actually been financially better off by missing the cut and going home on Friday night. But there I was on the two-hour drive back to Scottsdale on Sunday evening, having basically missed the last four paydays, and on the eve of teeing it up at a full-field Monday qualifier for seven spots, on a golf course I had never played.
Tom Stankowski, a former collegiate all-star product of Arizona State University, was a veteran pro playing on the Gateway Tour at the time and we grabbed dinner at the local Chipotle the night before that qualifier. His words of wisdom to me were: ‘Don’t hit any warm-up shots tomorrow. Just look in the mirror before you tee off and tell yourself what to do.’
Tom had spent a lot of time in Venice Beach, California, and always had a calming effect on those around him, a lot like Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski. So I listened. I arrived at the clubhouse in the morning and slowed it all down. I’m not sure if you have ever spoken to yourself out loud in front of a changing-room mirror before, but after missing a few cuts in a row I was willing to try anything. Well, four and a half hours later, I holed a 10-foot eagle putt on the 18th green to shoot 63 and qualify for that Web.com Tour event. My first call on the way home was to Tom and he couldn’t stop laughing at how thankful and excited I was.
To fully understand who ‘Tommy’ was to me as a rookie starting out in the Arizona desert all those years ago would take a few more chapters, so I will leave you with this instead: 14 years down the line from our days on the Gateway Tour, a 54-year-old Tommy reached out on Facebook with an update on his life, where his working hours were split between coaching and picking up balls in the cage-cart most evenings at a local driving range in Florida. He then let me know two things: he had just been diagnosed with cancer and was going to enter sectional qualifying for the US Senior Open in June. If there was ever a script for
a Tin Cup sequel, this was it.
His golfing updates on Facebook ramped up closer to the qualifying rounds for the US Open, with the comments section always filled with well-wishers and strength-givers along the way. From the sunrise post of hitting bucket after bucket, to the evening selfies taken against the backdrop of the cage-cart seat, we went on the entire journey with our friend.
The qualifying day finally arrived and his wall was flooded with posts from all over the world; a tribute to a man who had spent most of his life on the minor circuits, from Canada to Australia and even a stint in Africa during the early days of the Sunshine Tour. This was major, though, and not just because it was a Major, either. After anxiously refreshing the USGA home page a few dozen times for the qualifying results and now nearing midnight in Africa, somewhere outside Atlanta the last groups signed their scorecards and the final leaderboard went live. Scanning the short list of names with a ‘Q’ for ‘Qualified’ next to them, there it was: Tom Stankowski (Q) had just played his way into a Major championship.
Needless to say, his US Senior Open posts were incredible, as he made his way up to all the golfing greats and had photos taken with each of them. At the end of it all there was one comment on a picture he posted on Facebook which jumped out and hit me right in the throat. It read: ‘Thank you for being our fairytale, Tommy.’
This column is dedicated to my ‘big brother’, Tom Stankowski, as he does what he’s always done best and keeps fighting.