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Opinion: If you attend a golf tournament, follow golf etiquette

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Rory McIlroy gets set to start his Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as fans gather to watch his opening tee shot. Photo by Sean Gillen.

Sean Gillen
Oxford Stories
stgillen@go.olemiss.edu

“Grow the game” is a phrase often used with golf now. Professionals are doing that. Today’s golfers are competitive, younger, and they win. It keeps things interesting. These young golfers give college students people they can relate to, but there’s a struggle as the sport continues to grow – the fans.

Long ago, golf’s founding fathers helped create “a gentleman’s game.” It still has that feel, but it has drastically shifted. Golf is more inclusive now than ever before. In fact, the Augusta National Golf Club will host a women’s tournament next year, a week before The Master. It’s about time if you ask me. This is great for the game.

As golf grows, some personalities aren’t familiar with the oh-so-important golf etiquette, which is still very much a thing. What is golf etiquette?

Golf etiquette is common decency and courtesy on the golf course. It’s being still and quiet as a golfer is hitting their ball. It’s grabbing the chunk of grass you just shoveled out with your club and placing it back over the divot. It’s fixing ball marks on the green so the putting surface is smooth for you and your competitors.

I say common courtesy on the golf course because that’s literally what it is. Anyone who is on the golf course needs to understand golf etiquette. This applies to golfers, caddies, and yes, spectators (the fans in a professional setting) too.

So here’s the problem. As golf continues branch out, get younger, and attract new fans, these fans don’t know golf etiquette. In the past, we have seen players back off their shots because a ring or text tone is going off. Bubba Watson is one golfer in particular who has called fans out for what they are doing.

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Tiger Woods tees off in front a large gallery at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo by Sean Gillen.

Fans today, whether they like it or not, are used to all the odd sayings yelled after somebody hits their shot, phrases like “Baba booey, mashed potatoes,” and “Get in the hole.” If it’s a par five or four, I’m sorry, but that ball isn’t going in the hole. Tthis one annoys me the most.

Sometimes it brings humor to what outsiders may consider is boring sport, but its the fans that are starting to rub the players the wrong way.

Tiger Woods returning to golf is huge. Ratings have unquestionably gone up since Woods’ return to golf, which is a good thing. Despite his bumpy past, he is still a fan favorite, and many people just want to see him do well again.

Fans cling to megastars in any sport. The same is true in golf. This year, I was fortunate to go the Valspar Championship on Sunday and the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday. I can proudly say I have seen the “Tiger Woods mania” firsthand, and I came to the conclusion that a third of the gallery are not golf-familiar, meaning they aren’t fans of the sport really, just fans of Woods. This is where things can become messy with fans because they don’t know the etiquette involved in attending a tournament.

Lets backtrack to earlier this year in one of Woods’ first few rounds. On Sunday, Woods had a potentially successful birdie putt. Just like any other putt, he went through his routine and stepped up to the ball.

As he started his putting stroke, a fan yelled “GET IN THE HOLE.” Woods’ putter hadn’t even started moving forward towards the ball. It was still in his backstroke motion.

Woods missed his birdie putt. As soon as he made contact with the ball, he knew he missed his putt, and just looked up at the crowd hovering around the green with a look of “Come on man.” Immediately, fans were yelling “Get him out of here.”

Now, was Woods’ putt a guaranteed putt? No o putt truly ever is. However, a fan yelling when all is quiet, and before you’ve made contact with the ball is enough to mess up your swing and stroke. Woods wasn’t even in contention, but it was still one of the most disrespectful things somebody could do on a golf course.

Later, fan videos began surfacing on the web as a PGA staff approached the man and told him he would have to leave, and that he had also been banned for life from any future PGA tournament.

I use another example from earlier this year, this time at a crucial point in a tournament. The Honda Classic saw leader Justin Thomas experience heckling from one fan.

On the 18th tee, Thomas hit his drive, and afterwards, you could hear Thomas say, “Who said that? Who yelled for my ball to get in the bunker? Was that you? Enjoy your day buddy. You’re gone.”

Just like that the fan was kicked out. Thomas said following his win, that specific spectator had been saying negative things to him all round long. Thomas later apologized for throwing out the fan.

I don’t think Thomas owed anybody an apology. There’s no room for negative comments in golf, you just don’t hear it. It all circles back to golf etiquette and “the gentleman’s game.”

When I bring this up to friends to debate, they tell me it’s just like any sport. There are opposing fans. This is true, but the golf atmosphere is different, and so are its routes. I can guarantee when football was started, the founders weren’t thinking this is for the gentleman.

Golf has a different personality. There are golfers I really can’t stand, but I would never go to a tournament and boo them or do something disrespectful to them as they’re swinging. Golf is just different. There’s no Jumbotron on a golf course that says “Get loud” or “Make some noise.”

Rory McIlroy is one golfer who is known around the tour for how blunt he is about things. McIlroy suggested that Tiger Woods, “gives up half a shot a day to the rest of the field.” McIlroy has played with Woods a handful times. Both are big name players, but that is saying something. Truthfully, I think at this point in Woods’ career, he’s used to it.

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Rory McIlroy tees off in his Thursday round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as fans watch. Photo by Sean Gillen.

McIlroy also had his own troubles with a fan when somebody at the Arnold Palmer Invitational kept taunting and yelling out to the Northern Irishman, “Erica!” Erica, who is McIlroy’s wife, was present at the tournament following McIlroy. Eventually, McIlroy decided to let it go and try and focus on his game, but he saidhe wanted to go over to the fan and chat with him. I can’t blame him. That would be distracting for me too.

McIlroy took an alternate approach to this rising fan issue though. He said, “It’s gotten a little too much.” McIlroy, who turned pro in 2007, has played all over the world and has seen his fair share of rowdy fans, but he believes there’s another driving force – alcohol. He said it used to be people walking around with just beers. Now it seems everybody constantly has a cocktail in their hand. He suggests limiting alcohol sales.

The PGA should closely monitor fan behavior and keep things in check. This calls for tournament volunteers to report things as well. It should never come to the point where a player has to call out a fan like Justin Thomas did. If it was going on for so many holes why didn’t the staff act?

It’s a fine line. You are trying modernize the game and attract new crowds, but you’re not trying to disrupt the foundation of the game. There’s a reason why the guys on tour are professionals. To an extent, they should be able to tolerate a little rowdiness. But when it’s silent in someone’s swing, and a sudden noise is made, that’s enough to disrupt their entire sequence. There are lines that should not be crossed, and the start of this season did not look good with all the mishaps with fans.

Bottom line, if you attend a golf tournament (professional or amateur), you basically acknowledge that you will abide by all course rules. Golf etiquette applies to everyone on the grounds. Fans too.

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