Golf has forever been a spectator sport where decorum rules, sportsmanship reigns and nary is heard a discouraging word.
Forever might have an expiration date.
This week in Phoenix, officials are bracing for the largest throng ever to watch a PGA Tour event, and given the raucous atmosphere that permeates the massive desert party, beers and jeers will likely be plentiful.
|Fan reaction to Tiger Woods -- when he inevitably comes back -- will test the rules of gallery decorum. (Getty Images)|
It's a particularly interesting time to take stock of behavior at tour events, which have long been absent the type of loudmouthed, boorish and profane fan tirades sometimes experienced at other big league events. But given the circumstances of the moment, earplugs and Tasers might be popular items for certain tournament officials going forward.
Sure, golf fans have occasionally crossed the line, and we're not talking about the gallery rope. With what has played out over the past few days, it's not hard to envision the possibility of some ugly, or at least confusing, scenarios in the near future.
Mixing kegs of beer with sunshine in Phoenix is one thing and it's hardly unusual for dozens of the event's fans to get tossed or arrested by local police, especially since attendance tops six figures daily. But there's a storm forming on the horizon, and its name is Tiger Woods, who figures to generate some big-time fan blowback.
Woods spoke out last week for the first time in three months, and while he didn't indicate when he would return to the game, the comeback process has at last begun. So, wherever and whenever his initial appearances take place, fan reaction will be unfathomable, since Woods' behavior has prompted the most caustic backlash in golf history. Moreover, last week, his personal guard dog indicated he'll be taking no prisoners.
"Nothing changes," said his caddie of 10 years, Steve Williams, who has been known to toss cameras in lakes and dress down fans whose behavior puts Woods at a perceived disadvantage.
Given the incredible outpouring of animosity toward Woods, and the characteristically defiant stance adopted by Williams, it could get downright adversarial out there. Gunpowder, meet open flame.
The tour seems little disposed to put out the fire.
The PGA Tour doesn't have a security staff, per se. There's a small band of former FBI agents employed by the tour, hired more than a decade ago because of the increased security needs of Woods. Those staffers are traditionally assigned to the highest-profile players in a given field.
Week-to-week head-knocking and hand-cuffing is handled by local police agencies. Every week brings a new set of unpaid gallery marshals, too. So, in other words, determining who gets kicked out for bad behavior possibly falls to the judgment of ... a blue-haired schoolmarm volunteer ... on spring break?
"It's tournament by tournament," Commissioner Tim Finchem told reporters in Phoenix on Tuesday. "We don't have standard rules and regs on fan behavior. We haven't had many issues with fan behavior in the past.
"We just want our fans to deport themselves in a way that is not distractive to the players and what they're doing on the course."
That might be an increasingly tall order, and that's not a Finchem-related height joke. Twenty minutes earlier Finchem said, "We have an increasing percentage of fans who are not core golfers, who come out because the sport has gotten quite big."
To many of them, the polite golf clap is an antiquated notion. Thus, the tour's deportment department better start thinking ahead.
"To me, it gets back to pure and simple golf etiquette," said Scott Wellington, director of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which Woods has won six times. "Granted, there are a hell of a lot of people who don't know where that starts."
Much less where it ends. At the CA Championship, there's a boilerplate statement on the back of tickets that reads: Credentials may be revoked without refund for failure to obey all posted signs and instructions of championship officials, gallery marshals and/or security personnel.
The words are written in black and white, but the gray vagaries create confusion. Increasingly, spectators have become participants at all sporting events. But in golf, simple irreverence could get a guy tossed from the premises.
PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw's response to queries about the organization's stance on fan behavior was as follows: "We don't discuss our security procedures/policies."
That makes it crystal clear, doesn't it? Votaw later added, "We cannot possibly speculate as to the myriad of situations in which a fan will root for or against a player."
Yeah, but the rest of us can. Having a clear policy with regard to spectator behavior is for the protection of both the tournaments and fans. After all, as CA Championship director Eddie Carbone said, what is offensive to one is not offensive to all.
"It could be a subjective measure," Carbone said.
Maybe objectionable fan comments are an aural version of what that Supreme Court justice said many years ago about pornography. "I know it when I see it." Then again, perhaps not.
Let's say a guy directs a flippant comment at Woods that isn't disruptive and isn't at all R-rated. Something like, "Hey, Tiger, weren't Waffle House chicks hot enough for you?"
A hundred fans laugh, a hundred fans think it was in poor taste, and a policeman is supposed to decide whether the guy gets kicked out? Sounds like more explicit rules of order are in order.
"Yeah, but where do you start?" Wellington said.
Excellent point, even if it does muck up my rant. As it stands, the holes in the "policy" are ridiculous. Three years ago at the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio, Rory Sabbatini was in the process of blowing a huge lead to Woods in the final round and had just double-bogeyed the ninth hole. As background, Sabbo had made a few well-circulated comments about Woods' uneven results earlier in the year.
As the feisty South African walked toward the next tee, retired firefighter and paramedic Steve Banky asked Sabbatini, "Hey, Rory, still think Tiger's beatable?"
Sabbatini turned quickly, pointed at Banky and barked at police to have him removed. Though Banky uttered nothing remotely crude, did not interrupt play and hadn't even raised his voice, the cops walked him out the front gate.
"We're out here to do our job," Sabbatini said later. "Have a little bit of decorum, a little bit of class out there."
Banky said that he was shocked that an off-hand remark cost him his $55 ticket. If a guy can get tossed for a tame comment, where's that leave the rest of the paying customers when Woods returns, muzzled entirely?
"I wasn't trying to dog him," Banky said. "He said Tiger was beatable. I just called him on it."
In 2004, Davis Love was leading in the finals of the Match Play Championship outside San Diego when a fan started verbally riding him. Love later admitted that the guy got into his head and under his skin. Whether fans should have this degree of latitude is, again, debatable. Golfers typically wince at any negative remark.
The man let loose a "whoop," when Love missed a par putt and then yelled, "No Love," as the players were on the fifth tee. Love, No. 3 in the world at the time, wheeled and said he would not continue unless the heckler was identified and a man in a Tiger Woods hat was eventually thumbed.
"I wasn't going to play anymore until somebody got kicked out, because he had already cost me a hole," Love said after the round. "I wasn't going to put up with it. I want to win and I want to play and I want to play fair. You can't have people picking on you."
This sounds like heresy to devotees, but maybe that mindset needs some updating. It's hardly a stretch to think Woods will be greeted similarly, especially since many hardcore golf fans, acutely aware of the game's etiquette, seem the most outraged by his unseemly behavior.
There are common threads in both the Love and Sabbatini anecdotes. Woods was the opponent each time, and fans were kicked out for comments that would have drawn a chuckle at any other big league event. In both instances, a fan bought his ticket, didn't do anything that technically disrupted play, didn't offend anybody's sensibilities with profane comments, and was rooting for his man to win. In Love's case, the fan did violate the sport's decorum by rooting against a particular player.
Make that the sport's unspoken, unspecified decorum.
Nine years ago in Phoenix, Chris DiMarco faced a testy putt on the infamous 16th hole in the final round when a fan yelled "Noonan," a reference to Caddyshack. DiMarco rolled in the putt, pointed at the fan and gave him a baseball umpire's yer-out gesture with his thumb.
In all three instances, the fan was kicked to the curb, even though the timber and tone and intent was different in each case. As evidenced by the gallery actions in the Love and Sabbatini examples, Woods already was the biggest lightning rod in the game before the sex scandal.
Just as importantly, what fate awaits the slightly mouthy fan, the guy with a two-beer buzz? Gag orders make everybody gag, but here's a word of advice for those who have shelled out upwards of $50 for a daily ticket.
Don't wait for the gallery marshals to raise those "Quiet Please" hand signs, which might as well read, "Quiet, Or Else." If there's something you need to say, you'd better write it on a sign of your own.
If not, you could disappear in a blink and without making another sound.
You know, just like Woods did for three months.