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No place for heckling in golf

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Kevin Na took the brunt of the abuse Sunday at The Players Championship, but the game got abused, too.

The heckling was over the top, with drunken fans bellowing for Na to “pull the trigger” and with others singing “Na Na Na Na, hey hey hey, goodbye” when he rinsed his tee shot at the 13th hole.

Heckling is almost a fan’s right in most sports, but it’s necessarily different in golf, and it must remain different despite the mainstream sentiment that golf would be immensely more popular if fans had a larger and rowdier say.

Booing and heckling are a more accepted part of the fan culture in football, baseball and basketball, but the jeering doesn’t typically affect a competition’s outcome. That’s where golf is different. Given the nature of the game, a heckling fan’s ability to dictate an outcome is drastically more substantial.


Video: Na talks about fan reaction


A well-placed heckle is like a gust of 40-mph wind in golf.

Covering Doral a number of years ago, I asked Paul Azinger on the driving range what he thought of a heckling incident Davis Love III faced playing Tiger Woods at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Azinger loves the atmosphere of Ryder Cups, but his answer was classic. He said a heckling fan in golf is the equivalent of a fan in football reaching out with his leg to trip a player running up the sideline toward the end zone.

“The golf swing takes about a second and a half to make, and in that second and a half about 30 things run through your mind,” Azinger said. “That's how fast your mind works. If during that second and a half something happens, as minuscule as a camera click, or a horn going off, or somebody coughing or saying something, it's going to throw off the process.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying to see a tournament, I want to see the world’s best players dictating the outcome, not some idiot fan with a belly full of booze.

Yeah, golf’s endured this before, at Ryder Cups, at U.S. Opens with Colin Montgomerie being heckled as “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but every time sport's barbarians feel like they’re at the gate of golf, the game's devoted followers need to remind us why the gates should remain closed.

Really, if Tiger Woods gets to 17 major championship wins, do you want to see a well-timed heckle influence his shot at history? Woods can be affected. We saw it Thursday at The Players when he barked at a fan for taking a cell phone photo in his backswing. We heard Woods warn that such fan interference can affect outcomes.

There’s the larger issue of sportsmanship, too. It’s in sad decay in a society that’s becoming less civil.

“Manners are more important than laws,” British statesman Edmund Burke once wrote. “Upon them in a great measure the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in ... They aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

Sportsmanship is civility’s first cousin.

Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, once told me sportsmanship creates the atmosphere in which two competitors can draw out the best in each other.

“The word competition comes from a Latin root, competere, which means to strive together,” Josephson said. “That's the old version, the historic Olympic version, where you literally respect and honor your opponent, because you’re both giving your best to truly test your athletic ability to see who is fastest or more skilled. There is a nobility about competition.'

Olympic competition was meant to move man toward excellence, toward elevating the best in his nature.

“A true sportsman wants to play against his best competition on his competition’s best day,” Josephson said. “You literally respect and honor your opponent. Today, more and more people are engaged in sport as entertainment and business, where there’s a profit mentality ... Even in amateur sports, it’s all about winning, not competing

“If we lose the true meaning of sport, we just have another form of business, where everything becomes a highly manipulated entertainment process, where the extreme example is pro wrestling.”