The Birds Nest has been part of the FBR/Phoenix Open since 1972, when a group of Phoenix Thunderbirds hatched the idea while the tournament still was being played at Phoenix Country Club.
But that was just the embryo for what was to come, as it took another 15 years before the PGA Tour’s largest party tent really took flight.
It was 1987, and big things were on the horizon for the tournament — much larger than anyone could imagine. Crowds would soon swell over 100,000 in a single day, or about the number for the entire week at Phoenix Country Club. The Birds Nest also would undergo an incredible revolution, making the original Nest look like a pup tent.
The Thunderbirds, the civic organization that sponsors the event, had decided to make the jump from downtown Phoenix all the way to the outskirts of Scottsdale despite naysayers who claimed the tournament would die a slow death in the suburbs.
Pete Scardello was the tournament chairman for the ’87 Open, and he wasn’t quite sure what was standing in his path. He was so focused with the event itself, that the Birds Nest was more of an afterthought.
"Ticket sales going into the tournament had been great, but everybody was telling me that nobody was going to come, that people were just buying tickets to help us put on the event, and that I shouldn’t take it personally,’’ recalled Scardello, trying to hold back a laugh.
"The Birds Nest was the farthest thing from my mind. I mean we were still laying carpet in the clubhouse and sodding the course on the Sunday prior to tournament week. I turned the entire Birds Nest operation over to Steve Butterfield — I said, ‘Butter, go with it!’’ — and that might have been the best thing I ever did as tournament chairman.’’
Butterfield, who like Scardello is now a lifetime Thunderbird and no longer works on the tournament, immediately asked Scardello for an additional $5,000 to go with the original $7,500 that had been allocated for the Birds Nest.
"I told him, ‘Steve I can’t give it to you, we’re already way over budget on everything else,’ ’’ Scardello said. "I felt bad, but Steve had another plan, and, boy, did he deliver.’’
Butterfield had done some research on how he could make the Birds Nest bigger and better by collaborating with Scottsdale pro Howard Twitty. It was Twitty who had advised Butterfield to go to Dallas for the 1986 Byron Nelson Classic and see how the sponsoring Salesmanship Club ran its party tent, reputedly the prototype of its day.
"It was an amazing set-up,’’ Butterfield recalled. "They had two bands, two stages, lots of bars. What a party.’’
But Butterfield was not done with his search for the perfect tournament watering hole. A few months later, he went to Austin, Texas, on a business trip and ran into a place called Anchovies.
"I assumed it was a seafood restaurant, and I go in for some dinner, and there are (lead singer) Sam Irwin and Duck Soup blasting away. They’re playing a Turtles medley, and, well, I just happened to be a Turtles nut at the time.’’
Duck Soup and the Thunderbirds turned out to be a lasting relationship. In fact, "the official party band of the PGA Tour’’ has been to every FBR/ Phoenix Open since ’87. Irwin also has become a Birds Nest icon, and was made an honorary Thunderbird in 2002. And, yes, the group is cranking up the oldies again during the four-day frolic at The Nest.
"That was really a (heck) of a lineup we had that first year at the TPC,’’ Butterfield said. "But even with Duck Soup, I knew I had to reach for a little more.’’
Already out of money, Butterfield showed his ingenuity by talking 75 Thunderbirds and some of their friends into each putting up $100 for the entertainment.
"It was called the 75-100 club, and everybody who contributed got a button saying they were a member,’’ Butterfield said. "I then took most of that money ($5,500) and hired Otis Day and the Knights, who had become the ultimate party band following their appearance in the move ‘Animal House.’ ’’
To the marquee Butterfield added country crooner Jerry Jeff Walker and a local band called Infinity. Then he erected his 75-by-25 foot tent — about four times larger than the tent used at Phoenix Country Club — between the ninth green and the 10th tee in what is now the tournament’s food court.
"When Pete saw the tent, he was stunned. I guess people told him it was too big, and that it wouldn’t look crowded enough, like it used to,’’ Butterfield said. "At 32, I was the youngest Thunderbird ever, and I think some of the older Birds thought I had taken it over the top. The ironic part was, we knew in the first five minutes it was open that the new Nest wasn’t nearly big enough.’’
There were some other snafus that night that Butterfield had no way of preparing for, the biggest involving the opening act.
"Otis and the boys had been drinking pretty hard before they went on, and Otis ended up getting sick, and spent some time in the bathroom,’’ Butterfield said, laughing at the memory. "Finally, Otis staggered out of the bathroom, we led him to the mike, and he pulled himself together, and shouted: ‘Hit it.’
"I’ll never forget it. Otis Day, decked out in a purple-sequined tuxedo with his hair freshly slicked back, belting out Shamma Lamma Ding Dong while he was totally juiced. Man, the place went nuts!’’
On the other hand, Scardello sensed the Birds Nest was an immediate hit for other reasons — like all the headlights he saw flooding into nearby parking lots.
"I tell you, for every car that was leaving, five were coming in,’’ Scardello said of that first night. "I called Tommy Cunningham, who was head of security that year, and I said, ‘What’s happening out there?’
"He responded by telling me, ‘We’ve lost control. We’ve got cops, but not enough cops for all these people who are coming in.’ . . . It had been just a fun thing at Phoenix Country Club, but when we took it out there it was off the charts. A grand slam.’’
So much so that, 30 minutes into the night, the fire marshal had put a hold on the Birds Nest, which didn’t stop Otis’ act. No problem, as the people kept flocking to the hillsides surrounding the tent.
"It was wild,’’ Butterfield said of the debut. "There were twice as many people outside the tent as inside. I remember every TV station in town was there, and I ended up doing the interviews on top of the bar because there was no place to stand. All I can say is, the Birds Nest was jam-packed the rest of the week.’’
Scardello said that opening night still is one of his fondest tournament memories, "although the next day the grounds around (the Birds Nest) looked like we’d had a disaster.’’
"It’s evolved a lot through the years, but that very first one was the one that set the stage for what the Birds Nest was to become: the best party tent on the Tour,’’ Scardello added. "And I can’t say enough about the way ‘Butter’ handled it; it was just one of those deals, those magical moments, where everybody exceeded their jobs starting with Steve.’’
Five years later, the Birds Nest was moved near the east side of the 18th fairway, just off the golf property. A few players had complained, and the PGA Tour urged the Thunderbirds to get it off the course. There were more complaints a few years later, and it jumped across the Greenway-Hayden Loop onto what now is the Expo pad.
There the nomadic Nest rested until 2001. Unfortunately, a series of rowdy incidents that year had resulted in the Tour telling the Thunderbirds to take the Birds Nest off-site. The Thunderbirds complied by moving it to West-World, about a mile and a half from the tournament, where the tent more than doubled in size.
With acts like Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, Huey Lewis and the News, Cheap Trick, and Glenn Frey of Eagles fame, the Birds Nest became a rock concert. The crowds also doubled into the 6,000 to 8,000 range depending on the act. In a way, it had gotten too big for its britches, which is why 2005 tournament chairman Bryon Carney decided to scale it back.
"It didn’t justify the costs,’’ said Carney, pointing to high tabs for entertainment, heavy security, manpower and rental fees. "But it was more than just a financial decision to move it.
"We wanted people to get excited about the Birds Nest again, to make it more of a party associated with the tournament rather than a rock concert.’’
It seems like such a long time ago that a few Thunderbirds decided to throw their own party near the snack shack at Phoenix Country Club. In the 14 years it was held there, it moved to the swimming pool area, and then to a small tent on the tennis courts.
"It started out as just a place where the guys working the tournament could get away, take a breather, have a drink, and chew the fat,’’ said Jack McCone, one of the Thunderbirds who "nested’’ downtown.
Ben Brooks, another Thunderbird who worked the tournament at Phoenix Country Club, said the entertainment also differed drastically: "I think we had what you would call a boom box today, or maybe it was records before that. Or anybody with any kind of musical talent might get up there and sing and play. It was a small gathering, nothing like what it has become today.’’
Blame it on Otis Day and the Knights, or maybe a shift from a more innocent lifestyle to today’s fast-paced world. Reached at his home in Las Vegas, Otis Day, now 53, said he doesn’t remember much about that night.
"Good lord, I’ve done a thousand shows since then,’’ Otis said. "But I’ll tell you this: We’d love to come back. Now Phoenix . . . that’s a party town!’’
A reputation that can be directly linked to the evolution of the Birds Nest.