The idea that American golf spectators are the worst fans in sports is hardly new, but Rory McIlroy’s headline-grabbing suggestion to limit alcohol sales at PGA Tour events after the latest episode of bad behavior has placed them back in the spotlight. Which one assumes is how the “Get in the hole!” mouth-breathers like it anyway.
Let’s be clear: US golf fans exist in a separate category altogether from the hooligans or ultras who attend sporting events with the express purpose of committing acts of violence. And the well-lubricated attention-seekers blurting “mashed potatoes” and “Baba Booey” during players’ backswings represent a tiny fraction of the spectators who adhere to, if not the heightened standard of golf etiquette, then a baseline of human decency.
But there’s something unnervingly rotten about the bad apples whose, let’s be honest, predominately white male entitlement takes advantage of and corrodes what makes the sport unique, spoiling the experience for the majority.
There are some who might dismiss out of hand the notion of gentlemanly conduct in the modern age. These are occupational hazards for millionaire athletes, they say. Does splitting the fairway with a tee shot require more silence and concentration than hitting a curveball or taking a penalty? Of course not. And the idiocy of overserved loudmouths is hardly limited to golf.
But golf is different than other sports due to the proximity between the fans and the players. What other sport gives the rank-and-file spectator a chance to high-five their hero during competition? It’s a privilege that has far too often been abused by the knuckle-dragger who turns up to the course, inhales a dozen marked-up Stella Artois before spewing non sequiturs (at best) from the safety of the crowd. It’s clear to any semi-regular observer of the tour that something must be done. But it might already be too late.
Nowhere has the problem been isolated as a uniquely American epidemic than international events like the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, where profanities and insults have flown with alarming frequency over the last two years on US soil. Danny Willett’s school-teacher brother didn’t do the then-reigning Masters champion any favors when he launched a scorched-earth broadside on American fans ahead of the United States’ victory at Hazeltine in 2016, calling them “cretins … squeezed into their cargo shorts and boating shoes,” and “fat, stupid, greedy, classless, bastards … pausing between mouthfuls of hot dog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red”.
Harsh, to be sure. But the invective absorbed by Willett over the week that followed did nothing to dispel the characterization and rather underscored it. The vulgar conduct continued at last year’s Presidents Cup, but the trend is hardly limited to the flag-waving jingoism rampant at team competitions where the bar of etiquette have traditionally been relaxed. The well-documented accounts of players, caddies and family members from both sides of the pond confirm the abuse is worse on the American end.
Yet alcohol-fueled boorishness is just as prevalent at routine tour stops. There was the moron who yelled during Tiger Woods’ backswing on the green at Torrey Pines in January and countless other instances just like it in recent years. The problem is clear as day, but the solution is anything but.
Organizers have leveraged free-flowing booze and flag-waving tribalism to broaden the appeal of their events and dispute the notion of golf as a stodgy enterprise, but at the cost of its own standards of decorum. We’re seeing now they can’t have it both ways.
There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, not when tournaments like the Waste Management Phoenix Open have leaned into their self-coined reputation as the “biggest party in golf” to the tune of record-breaking crowds that represent desperately needed antidotes to narratives of the sport’s demise.
The social compromise, which is reflected across society everywhere from political discourse to the way we treat one another online, might be acceptable if the trend appeared to be holding steady. But it’s by all metrics getting worse. The PGA Tour’s executive vice president, Ty Votaw, has said a fan can be punished if they yell when a player is taking a shot – but anything after impact is within the rights of a ticketholder. Never more has the chasm between what’s legal and what’s right been wider.
Nearly all other spectator sports in America attempt to discourage public drunkenness with formal alcohol policies. Major League Baseball discontinues beer sales after the seventh inning, while the NFL and NBA don’t permit the sale of alcohol after the third quarter. Similar measures at PGA Tour events couldn’t eliminate boorishness completely and might feel like a penalty on the vast majority of well-behaved, well-adjusted spectators, but they’d do nothing to exacerbate a trend that’s headed in one direction.
Ultimately, it falls on the spectators themselves to self-police: like the crowd who zeroed in on Woods’ tormentor at Torrey Pines. That’s a frightening last resort for those with a grasp of human nature, but in times like these it’s all we’ve got.