Golf isn’t really an audience-participation sport, per se, but if we learned nothing else about the game this past year, we learned just how important a full gallery is to the appreciation of the game. There’s something magnificent and life-affirming about a player draining a winning putt in front of a full gallery, and there’s something kind of sad and pathetic if the same thing happens with only a couple of tentative claps.
So yes, the audience is a crucial component to golf. But is the audience’s commentary crucial? Plenty of golf fans in the gallery believe it’s their right to shout “mashed potatoes!” or “Get in the hole!” after every shot. (A couple beers in, and some fans start to believe shouting along is a requirement.)
Most pros shrug off the fan yelping as an annoying but necessary part of the game — the customer base isn’t all well-mannered, buttoned-down golf clap types, of course. For most of the golf-as-an-SEC-tailgate era, the only real complaint was that the shouts were so uninspired. (Saying “get in the hole!” on a par 5? That’s silly, you little scamps!)
Careful what you wish for, though, because as of mid-2021 there’s a new heckle on Tour, and it’s now reached the status of Serious Problem.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, the golf world’s Hulk and Thor, have spent the last two years or so in a rivalry that’s rarely risen above “trash talk on your fantasy football draft night” heat, but for golf, that’s pretty much a nuclear rage. Koepka is the winner on every judge’s card, running the table in every category except actual tournaments won.
Koepka is indubitably cooler than DeChambeau, which means the kind of golf fan who thinks it’s a good idea to bellow out slogans on a golf course now thinks it’s a really good idea to go after DeChambeau. Shouts of “Brooksie!” now trail DeChambeau like hungry seagulls looking for french fries.
Hearing generalized attempts at humor is one thing. Hearing a merciless, constant stream of jabs, directed with what’s-the-matter, can’t-take-a-joke topspin is something else entirely. Sunday, at the conclusion of an otherwise magnetic BMW Championship, DeChambeau had apparently heard enough. As ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg recounted in a strong post-round story:
A patron waited until DeChambeau had walked by, but was not out of earshot, then sneered from over the rope line, “Great job, Brooksie!” DeChambeau spun around in a rage and began briefly walking in his direction.
“You know what? Get the f— out!” DeChambeau yelled. He had rage in his eyes.
I’m being dead serious when I say it could have gotten ugly really fast. Maybe not “Malice at the Palace” bad, but in that moment, nothing would’ve surprised me. A rope line is little more than a polite suggestion when it comes to security at a golf tournament. DeChambeau had been hearing, and ignoring, that kind of taunt all week. But everyone has their breaking point.
DeChambeau punching out a heckler would’ve gone a long way to getting golf fans (and probably more than a few players) on his side, but that understandably is not what the PGA Tour would like to see. (That decked fan would have landed gently on a bed of personal injury lawyers’ cards immediately flung in his direction, if nothing else.)
So the Tour is taking action, and as you’d expect, the “Brooksie” clowns have screwed it up for everyone. Yell that now, and you’re out the gates.
“The barometer that we are all using is the word ‘respect,’ and to me, when you hear ‘Brooksie’ yelled or you hear any expression yelled, the question is, is that respectful or disrespectful?” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said during a Tuesday press conference prior to the Tour Championship. “That has been going on for an extended period of time. To me, at this point, it’s disrespectful, and that’s kind of behavior that we’re not going to tolerate going forward.” He listed expulsion and loss of credentials or tickets as potential penalties.
The idea of policing the behavior of a golf tournament is at best a polite fiction. As we’ve seen with Tiger Woods at East Lake in 2018 and Phil Mickelson at Kiawah in 2020, a crowd has a mind of its own, and all the rent-a-cops in the county aren’t going to be able to keep that crowd from surging right over the rope line if the will arises. Trying to pluck one “Brooksie!” goon out of a crowd is a fruitless endeavor, one that will either require Pinkertons to mix in amongst the masses or deal with a constant stream of “It wasn’t me, bro!” defenses.
There’s no one uniform standard for fan behavior outside the ropes. Certain golf tournaments west of the Mississippi take a “look, just don’t light the fairway on fire” approach. Others in eastern Georgia use the threat of barring your great-grandchildren from their hallowed grounds as an appropriate (and incredibly effective) threat. Most galleries fit somewhere in between, but like water, tend to seek the lowest level.
Monahan tried to appeal to the better angels of fans’ nature, for all the good that will do:
“I would ask our fans, again, the very best fans in the world, to take a moment and think about what it means to be a golf fan and to enjoy a PGA Tour tournament,” he said. “We’re going to be leaders in this space. We’re going to show everyone how easy it is to enjoy yourself at an event while also respecting the athletes in the field of play and the fans around you, many of whom are families with young kids who have a chance to be lifetime fans of the game themselves. Quite honestly, we should expect nothing less from each other, whether we’re at a golf tournament or elsewhere in life.”
Wonderful idea in theory. Utterly impossible in practice. The genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the horse out of the barn … pick your metaphor, but the galleries are once again running wild, verbally if not (yet) physically. The Tour will have a fight on its hands bringing them back to its standards of proper golf demeanor.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]