Friday 15 November 2019

Comment: Leading golfers should just suck it up and stop the bleating about fans

Justin Thomas kisses the trophy after winning The Honda Classic
Justin Thomas kisses the trophy after winning The Honda Classic

James Corrigan

First, a player has a fan ejected for shouting “get in the bunker” after he has hit his ball and then, a day later, he apologises for “over-reacting”. Here was golf in all its archaic absurdity.

If there was a person in absolute control of this sport then he or she (and, we should be honest, it would be a “he”) would be banging the table in frustration. The pro was Justin Thomas and he is supposed to be at the vanguard of selling the game to the new generation. Instead, the stuffy image is not only perpetuated, but magnified.

Apparently it is open season on rowdy fans. Yet what qualifies as rowdy? The miscreant removed under Thomas’s demands at the Honda Classic on Sunday had told the world No 3, “I want you to hit it in the water” and, when he failed to, beseeched the small white round thing to locate sand.

The week before Rory McIlroy had slated unruly galleries who plague Tiger Woods. “They shout things like, ‘The putt breaks more than you think’,” McIlroy explained. Not exactly the New Den, is it?

Of course, golf is not football and the officials should be wary to ensure the crowds remain on the gentlemanly side of leery. Yet, as tournaments try to reach a wider audience by dangling incentives which tend to make hoards of youngsters come over all anti-social (ie, opening the bars at 7am), they should step back from their endlessly ringing tills and think what it is they want.

They cannot have some bespoke deal where they get all the benefits of a huge audience quaffing Margaritas at $10 for two – and then expect them to behave like extras off Downton Abbey.

Let us be clear, this is solely an American problem. In the aftermath of the Thomas incident, the Golf Channel warned “European fans at this year’s Ryder Cup in Paris might take note of the apparent impact the gallery can have on Thomas”.

That is laughable. While there might have been a few choice comments at Valderrama in 1997, the only abusive baiting since then has been on US soil by US support. Even at the 2010 tussle at Celtic Manor, the home crowd resisted targeting Tiger Woods, who was in the midst of his infidelity scandal.

Consider that: not one heckle was recorded, in jest or otherwise. That is taking respectful restraint to its limit.

And as far as the French go, can you imagine them resorting to loud-mouthed ridicule or even bellowing the golf gallery’s favourite absurdity, “mashed potato!”? True, some wag may holler “puree de pommes de terre!”, but it would be funny.

And there is the point. Because the American taunts are very rarely humorous; they are simply annoying. Yet that is no reason to fling the buffoons out on their ears, after they have been encouraged to pay hundreds on tickets, burgers and hooch.

So what if some idiot wished ill on Thomas’s game in Florida last Sunday? He did not do so when he was in mid-swing, did not use any flagrant language. Thomas was on his way to a £1 million payday, which he celebrated with a very audible “f---, yeah”. Suck it up.

Good on Thomas, he has since said sorry for being so precious, but golf might ask why it is up to the pros to deem who gets to leave prematurely. It should not be their decision, and the fact it is makes them look like divas who must not be upset. Alas, some of their number are just that.

Thomas is actually one of the good guys, but a few days earlier he whacked a ball into the throng without shouting “fore” and left a man bleeding profusely. No punishment for the pro and a signed glove for the victim.

Even the penitent Thomas agreed it did not seem a fair deal. But that is being a golf fan for you. Mouth shut, wallets open, be thankful for what you receive.

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