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What Ever Happened to Golf's Hushed Galleries?

By John M. Ross,
2009 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines South
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Today's golf galleries are noisier than before because the game is attracting more people. (Michael Zito/Eclipse Sportswire)

As they prepared to raise the curtain on the playing of the Presidents Cup matches on the outskirts of Washington last week, the pre-match speculation didn't center on whether the American team was strong enough to beat the international squad, but, rather, on how the American gallery would behave.

The last two times the U.S. had played host to international team matches - the Ryder Cup matches at Kiawah Island and at Brookline - its golf fans had received poor marks for sportsmanship.

And even more recently, the American reputation took another blistering when U.S. Captain Pat Bradley beat her Solheim Cup opponents over the head with the rule book and insisted that an incredible pitch be replayed because it had unwittingly been played out of turn. It had no effect on Team Europe's upset win, but even the low-key, restrained Scottish fans who witnessed it at the Loch Lohmond Club seemed to reappraise the American brand of sportsmanship.

To be sure, golf galleries have changed perceptibly in recent years. Where once they were sedate and mostly silent, applauding politely in the right places, today, in many areas - not all - they are raucous, even boisterous, sometimes turning a match into something that sounds more like a college football game.

Of course, golf is changing, too. When the game began to attract crowds of significant size to the tournaments, the gallery was generally made up of mostly club members, well versed in the rules and etiquette of the sport. And, since they were largely golfers, too, they understood the player's needs on the course. They knew he could concentrate better on a difficult putt in a hushed atmosphere, that sudden movement by spectators in his area could be very disturbing.

Being a non-golfer when I started to cover golf for a newspaper, way back when, I didn't understand that. In baseball, basketball and other sports, the players had to play at top level under the worst possible conditions. Fans would boo and hiss, especially the rival team, at the most critical time. A pitcher struggling to get the third strike; a place-kicker angling for the winning goal; a basketball player at the line trying to get an important foul shot through the hoop - all suffered distracting abuse from the crowd, waving handkerchiefs, shrieking whistles, stamping feet. But most of the time, it failed to bother them.

Why then, I wondered, did a golfer or a tennis player need a cone of silence in order to perform properly? I asked a golfer about this one day, and his answer made sense.

"Most golfers have learned to play the game in that quiet atmosphere," he explained. "Others in the foursome remain silent when a golfer putts. No one moves while he is hitting, etc. If they had learned to play the game under different conditions, noise and other distractions probably wouldn't bother most of them."

The first break in the department of the more sedate sports galleries probably came in tennis in the matches at Forest Hills when Richard "Pancho" Gonzalez arrived on the scene. He was a Mexican-American from the other side of the tracks, tall and good-looking, and he almost flattened the ball when he hit it. He attracted a whole new segment of fans to the game, not necessarily tennis fans, but sports fans that liked to root all-out for their heroes, especially underdogs.

Long-time tennis patrons were stunned by this, especially when the admonishment of the referee periodically failed to put the slightest dent in the uproar. "The gallery will refrain from outbursts while the ball is in play," he would intone in the manner of a Supreme Court Justice, but it made no impact. Pancho's rooters would simply pour it on, often in Spanish.

This paved the way for a more complete change in the tennis scene when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe came along later with a new behavior code. The tennis gallery quickly joined in, and it has never been the same since.

In golf, the first signs of a change in gallery conduct can be traced to the explosion of Arnold Palmer, coupled with the overall golf boom of the early Sixties. Of course, Palmer brought "Arnie's Army" with him, and not even the introduction of signs asking for "Silence," held by the marshals, could restore the scene to what it had been. Perhaps the most indicative mark of transition was the single-engine plane flying over the August National at the height of the Masters, tugging a line of letters that spelled out, "Go, Arnie, Go." It was, indeed, a new era.

The introduction of international competition on a broad scale has been a forerunner of the current problems that are tarnishing the game and causing some to question America's sportsmanship. Before it changed over to expand with the Great Britain and Ireland team and include European players, the U.S dominated the Ryder Cup matches. The Yanks had won 19 of the first 22 events in the biennial series, and not many people went to see it. When television came along, it attracted little interest, and it joined the group pleading for a change in format.

When the switch came in 1979, it quickly became one of the top international sports attractions, ultimately swelling to the $63-million operation that it is today. This, understandably, was the result of the European team becoming a real competitor, knocking off the highly favored Yanks with incredible frequency. And, true to predictions, an enormous outbreak of nationalistic pride erupted on each side of the ocean.

The incident at Brookline probably has gotten more attention than the others, but the American players - and their wives too - have taken their share of abuse at places like the Belfry and Valderrama. At Brookline, the outbreak was understandable: a total explosion of emotions following the miraculous putt by Justin Leonard on the 17th that topped off the greatest team comeback in Ryder Cup history. True, the rush of U.S. players and fans across the green in wild-eyed celebration left poor Jose Maria Olazabal marooned, waiting to putt to halve the hole. It didn't affect the overall outcome of the match, but it did trample on the much-treasured etiquette of golf.

With the President Cup and the Solheim Cup matches, we now have more international competition than ever. And more opportunity for similar incidents. And they will happen. But it's not "World War III," as some claim.

Yes, today's golf galleries are noisier, more boisterous than before, mostly because the game is attracting more people. With a huge menu of TV events, golf is pulling in not only just golfers, but also sports fans that want to sample this unusual game as spectators.

For some, it's like an outing - a walk in the park. You're not locked in a seat, and you can simply wander and sip your beer as you go, watching a shot here and a shot there.

More than one study fingers the beer guzzler as the source of the gallery's behavior. He seems to get noisier as the day goes on and the beer consumption goes up. Before long, he's bellowing to the putter, "You the man! You the man!" Or joining his fellow guzzlers in some kind of idiotic chant.

Tournament organizers have tried to control some of this by cutting down on beer sales, raising the prices, or shutting it off at an early hour. Some have increased the number of marshals to maintain better order. Nothing seems to work, and they're still scratching for ideas.

I doubt any will come out of the Subway Series between the Mets and the Yankees.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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