Even before the 2019 PGA Championship, Bethpage Black had earned a reputation for rowdy fans.
U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009 were packed. Fans hooted and hollered for Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, having a good ol' time. A decade after the last major, the New York-area fans returned to Long Island in droves again, rooting on Mickelson and Woods, along with the latest crop of young studs. Announcers on TNT and CBS were quick to praise their enthusiasm until halfway through the back nine on championship Sunday. With Brooks Koepka bleeding shots, and Dustin Johnson trying to mount a comeback, things got weird.
CBS Announcer Nick Faldo chastised the crowd for shouting during Johnson's swing on the 17th hole, a shot that ended up missing the green and leading to a crushing bogey. Meanwhile, Koepka dealt with fans openly rooting for Johnson, chanting "DJ, DJ" and "choke". Koepka ultimately won and shrugged it off.
"It's New York. What do you expect, when you're half-choking it away," he said.
Did the fans go too far? Bill Irwin thinks so, but Jason Scott Deegan isn't so sure. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Are golf fans becoming too obnoxious?
Bill Irwin: Bethpage crowd not in the spirit of golf
We’re at a crossroads. Golf has always been a sport that set itself apart in the way its participants conduct themselves. Honor, integrity, decorum, respect, and fair competition are more than words in golf -- they are considered the fabric of the sport. After all, this is a game where you are expected to call penalties on yourself. (Consider the contrast with other sports, i.e. baseball, where “stealing signs” and anything else you can do to get an advantage is part and parcel of the competition).
Golf has proudly paraded its special qualities. And those special qualities are considered to carry over to the conduct of the spectators – patrons, as they say at The Masters. Spectators in golf have always had a special obligation to march in step with the players. I think of all the marshalls holding up “Quiet” signs. I think of the “golf clap,” which, while it has become a laughable caricature, nonetheless conveys the restraint one is expected to show while watching a golf tournament in person.
You’re not supposed to “act out” at a golf tournament—unless, of course, it is the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the lone week each year when anything goes. At all other tournaments, making noise during a swing has always been a no-no. Remember those times when Stevie Williams grabbed cameras as he was trying to protect Tiger from distractions during his swing.
Golf has always been a sport where you’re expected to root for someone, not against anyone. That wasn’t the case at Bethpage. As the fans embraced Johnson, they dissed Koepka, and even tossed vulgarities at his girlfriend, according to Golf Digest. The conduct of the fans rankled Koepka’s playing partner, Harold Varner III, to the point where he said he had some choice words of his own for the Bethpage crowd, which he deemed was being grossly unfair to Koepka.
I’m concerned that someday a horde of fans will go beyond the pale. This can happen when there’s a crowd. I’m always a bit uncomfortable at sporting events because so many fans seem to be in a state of rage. Alcohol exacerbates the chances something may ignite. It’s happened at soccer matches. It’s happened when fans storm the court or field after a particularly momentous upset or triumph. It happened in tennis, when Monica Seles was stabbed with a knife by a Steffi Graf fan.
Could something happen at a golf tournament? Can a lone rope really restrain a rowdy crowd? Koepka mentioned that he noticed that people broke through on no. 18 and were racing down the fairway. He referred to seeing 15 cops trying to keep the crowd at bay and he said it must have made quite a photo.
Fans feel increasingly empowered to say and do anything at most sporting events. I feel like they see themselves as part of the game and are increasingly playing a role in it.
Let’s jump ahead to consider the Ryder Cup at Bethpage in 2024. Is there any chance the New York crowd would tolerate a gesture such as “The Concession,” when Jack Nicklaus conceded a three-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that resulted the 1969 Ryder Cup Matches finishing in a 16-16-tie?
Even Koepka noted it could get crazy: “Good luck to Europe, with the fans.” It’ll make for great theatre, but is this really where we want golf to go?
Jason Scott Deegan: Let the fans have their fun
So, if the fans went too far, then why did Koepka not call them out? He actually used their negative energy to motivate his own game. That, to me, is a major part of being an athlete. Can you successfully compete when everything - the fans, the refs (there are none in golf), the opposition - are all pulling against you?
"Like I said, I think it actually helped," Koepka said. "It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, okay, all right. I've got everybody against me. Let's go. Yeah, I mean, I definitely heard the cheers, too."
This kind of fan madness is exactly why players love the Ryder Cup so much. It creates atmosphere. Buzz. Angst and Ecstasy. Fans love rooting for perceived good and evil. In America, the Euros are the enemy. In Europe, the Americans are the spoiled brats who need to be humbled. What's wrong in bringing some of this into tournament golf?
I'm a Mickelson fan. I used to root against Woods relentlessly. Does that make me petty or jealous? Maybe a little, but it doesn't make me a bad person. I'm rooting for my guy. If Tiger making bogey helps Mickelson, I'm happy. There's an unwritten rule in country club sports like tennis and golf that you don't cheer when someone makes a mistake. Yet in football you hear large roars when the yellow flag is thrown for a penalty. When my son's baseball team makes an error, the opposing fans send the message loud and clear that they're thrilled we just screwed up.
If golf wants to be like the more popular sports - football, baseball and basketball - it needs to do away with the golf clap and embrace the roars, the energy, the edgy conflict. Why are so many golf tournaments so sleepy? Golf needs to step into the real world if it wants to remain relevant. Taunting isn't acceptable in any arena, but if you chant "Red Sox!" when the Yankees are batting or "DJ" in between Koepka's shots, what's the bother? This is what fans DO.
I don't watch much NBA, but I happened to catch the double overtime thriller the Toronto Raptors won this weekend over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto super fan and star rapper Drake was sitting in the front row, openly trash talking the Bucks and generally wearing the emotions of the game on his sleeves. Golf fans should be allowed to do this without fear of being rebuked by other golf fans. Anything to make the event more exciting.
There also was no rope or cops between Drake's front row seat and the action on the court. Being this close to the action is why we love being fans. We want to feel part of it. Otherwise, the game is meaningless. Let us enjoy our moment, because, come Monday, we'll be back grinding away at our everyday lives.
Like Bill, I don't support yelling in someone's back swing, and of course I don't condone fans harassing a player's girlfriend in the gallery. That's over the line. There are idiot fans everywhere. There's not much we can do about them. But maybe it's time to reconsider what a boisterous golf fan really is. The game could use a little New York grit and a little more sizzle at other tournaments.