The People’s Open

Stephen Denton’s photography gets up close and a little too personal at the Waste Management Phoenix Open

Stephen Denton vividly remembers the final picture before the crash. 

The photographer had just wrapped his day of shooting at the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open when two middle-aged women —both draped with corporate tent credentials and both clearly intoxicated— asked him for a keepsake they’d surely never remember. 

They assumed Denton was there to photograph Fowler, Matsuyama or Mickelson. But in actuality, he was looking for people exactly like them. They posed, he clicked, and they all moved on. Then all hell broke loose.  

Denton was barely a lob wedge down the path before one of the women jumped in an unattended golf cart and sped off. She narrowly missed a few packs of patrons before slamming into a portable bathroom and ATM station bordering the 18th hole. Had the structures not been there to stop it, the cart almost certainly would have barreled down a hill full of unsuspecting fans. 

“That was the craziest thing I’ve seen in three years shooting there,” says Denton, no small statement considering the mayhem he’s witnessed in the desert at one of golf’s most famous annual parties.

The 2021 rendition of “The People’s Open” will see significantly less people, which should make for more efficient…waste management.

It was exactly the kind of pandemonium Denton’s father tried to shield him from as an impressionable kid. Each year, from age 9 to 18, the younger Denton would take a break from his own competitive golf schedule to attend the local tournament with his dad. They almost always avoided the rowdy action at No. 16. 

When college at Arizona State eventually beckoned, that father-son tradition ended along with Denton’s playing career—a classic case of junior golf burnout. But after a four-year break, he decided to give the experience another shot. What he saw was a crowd more in line with the blue-collar golf he now identified with.

“I’ve always really liked the inclusion that you get at smaller courses,” he says. “Anyone can play, there’s no elitism, there’s no pressure. It’s just people having fun, and that’s what brought me back to the game: Just playing golf and drinking beer.”

During his hiatus, Denton traded his clubs for a camera, formulating a uniquely bright and brash style along the way. His “poppy” technique, while he admits is somewhat polarizing, was perfect for the bright lights of 16. More importantly, it was something nobody had tried before on a hole that seemingly everybody had documented. 

“I needed to find my own voice as a photographer,” he says, “and I needed to figure out what I like to shoot. I’ve always been drawn towards little subtleties or just weird things. Everyone knows the tournament is a crazy scene, but I’d never seen any true imagery of it. There’s people passed out, there’s people who have pissed themselves…Good or bad, it’s extreme everywhere you look.” 

After multiple denied credential attempts as a freelancer, Denton was finally granted access to shoot the tournament for Phoenix Magazine in 2017. He has returned each year since to build on the project he calls “The People’s Open.” It has helped fully rekindle his relationship with the game, although recent assignments for the up-and-coming shooter at Kingston Heath, Cape Wickham and Augusta National have certainly contributed.

With social distancing guidelines and attendance restrictions in place at this year’s edition of the WMPO, Denton has no plans to attend.

“It’s interesting to think that this happened in the first week of February last year, only a month before the country basically shut down,” he says. “Scenes like this, it’s only been a year, but, I don’t know…they just seem so foreign to me now.”

After all, what’s a People’s Open without the people?