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For better or worse, golf attracting the mainstream crowd

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A split second after Bubba Watson launched his tee shot at the par-4 10th hole on Sunday at Riviera Country Club the relative calm was shattered by one overly enthusiastic, and probably over-served, fan.

“Boom goes the dynamite!” the fan yelled.

Watson ignored the attention seeker, adhering to the notion it’s best not to make eye contact. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to turn a deaf ear.

The last few weeks on the PGA Tour have been particularly raucous, first with the circuit’s annual stop at the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party,” which is also known as the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and then last week in Los Angeles, where Tiger Woods was making his first start since 2006 and just his second of this season.

Fans crowded in five and six people deep along fairways and around greens to get a glimpse at the 14-time major champion, to cheer and, with increasing regularity, to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior at a golf tournament.

“I guess it's a part of it now, unfortunately. I wish it wasn't, I wish people didn't think it was so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we're trying to hit shots and play,” said Justin Thomas, who was grouped with Woods for the first two rounds at Riviera.



Although overzealous fans are becoming the norm, there’s a particularly rowdy element that has been drawn to the course by Woods’ return from injury. Even last month at Torrey Pines, which isn’t known as one of the Tour’s more boisterous stops, galleries were heard with increasing regularity.

But then Tiger has been dealing with chaotic crowds since he began rewriting the record books in the late-1990s, and it’s easy to dismiss the chorus of distractions. But it turns out that is as inaccurate as it is inconsiderate.

“It might have been like this the whole Tiger-mania and these dudes, but I swear, playing in front of all that, [Woods] gives up half a shot a day on the field,” reasoned Rory McIlroy, who was also grouped with Tiger for Rounds 1 and 2 last week. “It's two shots a tournament he has to give to the field because of all that goes on around him. ...  I need a couple Advil, I've got a headache after all that.”

There’s always been a price to pay for all of the attention that’s followed Woods’ every step, but McIlroy’s take offered new context. How many more events could Tiger have won if he had played in front of galleries that didn’t feel the need to scream the first thing that crossed their mind?

“It's cost me a lot of shots over the years. It's cost me a few tournaments here and there,” allowed Woods after missing the cut at Riviera. “I've dealt with it for a very long time.”

For Woods, the ubiquitous, “Get in the hole,” shriek has simply been an occupational hazard, the burden that he endured. What’s changed in recent years is that behavior has expanded beyond Tiger’s gallery.

While officials two weeks ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open happily announced attendance records – 719,179 made their way to TPC Scottsdale for the week – players quietly lamented the atmosphere, specifically around the 16th hole that has become particularly harsh in recent years.

“I was a little disappointed in some of the stuff that was said and I don't want much negativity – the normal boos for missing a green, that's fine, but leave the heckling to a minimum and make it fun, support the guys out playing,” Rickie Fowler said following his second round at TPC Scottsdale.

What used to be an entertaining one-off in Phoenix is becoming standard fare, with players bracing for a similar atmosphere this week at PGA National’s 17th hole, and that’s not sitting well with the rank and file.

“I guess they just think it's funny. It might be funny to them, and obviously people think of it differently and I could just be overreacting, but when people are now starting to time it wrong and get in people's swings is just completely unacceptable really,” Thomas said in Los Angeles. “We're out here playing for a lot of money, a lot of points, and a lot of things can happen, and you would just hate to see in the future something happen down the line because of something like that.”

This issue reared its rowdy head at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, and again two years ago at Hazeltine National. Combine thousands of patriotic fans with a cash bar and what you end up with is an atmosphere closer to Yankee Stadium in October than Augusta National in April.

It’s called mainstream sports, which golf has always aspired to until the raucous underbelly runs through the decorum stop signs that golf clings to.

This is not an endorsement or a justification for the “Mashed Potatoes” guy – Seriously, dude, what does that even mean? – and it seems just a matter of time before someone yells something at the wrong moment and costs a player a title.

But this is mainstream sports. It’s not pretty, it’s certainly not quiet and maybe it’s not for golf. But this is where the game now finds itself.