Following Rory McIlroy's comments yesterday about fans' boorish behaviour, here's a recent article I wrote for the Irish Examiner. It followed Justin Thomas's intervention to get a fan ejected at the Honda Classic (22-25 February).
In the final round, Justin Thomas hit his tee shot on the 16th hole only for a fan to shout ‘get in the bunker’ as the ball was in the air.
“Who said that?” Thomas asked. “Was that you? Enjoy your day, buddy, you’re gone.”
And so the fan was ejected.
Afterwards, Thomas said that as he approached the tee box the fan yelled, “I hope you hit it in the water.” This was then followed by the bunker taunt.
“I was like, OK, I’ve had enough,” Thomas told reporters. “I just turned around and asked who it was, and he didn’t want to say anything, now that I had actually acknowledged him. So he got to leave a couple holes early.
“I don’t want to kick someone out just to kick them out. It’s just so inappropriate. We’re out here trying to win a tournament.”
Twitter went into overdrive calling Thomas’s reaction excessive… many were vitriolicwhile others posted that they would no longer be a fan of the 24 year old. On Monday, the day after he had won his seventh title in his last 31 PGA Tour starts, Thomas took to Twitter to acknowledge that he had over-reacted and to apologise to fans, but also to clarify what had led up to the event.
The question I want to ask is do you agree with Justin Thomas asking for the fan to be removed?
Consider this: only a couple of weeks before someone had yelled ‘Get in the hole’ during Tiger’s putting stroke at the Farmers Insurance Open. The interruption clearly distracted the great man as he begins his return to competitive golf. Those who were following Tiger called for the idiot to be ejected but Tiger carried on about his business.
Now let’s go back to 2016, and day two of the Ryder Cup in Hazeltine National Golf Club. Between the seventh and eighth hole a fan yelled at Rory McIlroy to 'suck a d***' while also making references to Rory’s separation from Caroline Wozniacki. Rory stepped into the crowd and confronted the heckler who was identified to a course marshal and then removed.
"Someone just said a few derogatory things I thought were over the line," McIlroy said. "I tried to get him removed. I'm not sure if he was removed or not but these things happen.”
“Sergio, you suck” was also aimed at Garcia, who was playing a couple of groups behind Rory that same day.
It didn’t help that Danny Willett’s brother had written an article immediately before the Ryder Cup, laying into American fans and calling them cretins and a baying mob of imbeciles. Many American fans took exception to the comments with a few only too happy to confirm the accuracy of Pete Willett’s stereotype.
I may be looking at this through rose-tinted glasses but I don’t recall individual players being targeted like this during Ryder Cups on this side of the Atlantic, nor during European Tour events. Is this, as Pete Willett suggested, an American phenomenon that has spilled over from the competitive cauldron of the Ryder Cup into regular tour events?
Golf is a unique sport that allows fans to get incredibly close to the players. Fans know to remain quiet during a player’s swing. It’s about respect and etiquette and, as much as the world’s golfing bodies want to attract more fans and participants, those particular virtues must remain.
Following the Thomas incident someone on Twitter tried to compare golf fans with those supporting American football or baseball. Not only are these different sports they are also worlds apart in terms of how fans react to what is happening on the field and how the athletes themselves experience the game from a very young age.
One of the first things you learn in golf is that you don’t talk when someone is swinging a club. It’s disrespectful and you certainly wouldn’t be happy if someone did it during your swing. When a fellow player hits the green, finds the middle of the fairway or rolls a long putt to a few inches you’re inclined to say ‘good shot’… even in matchplay. You are not inclined to say ‘get in the bunker’ as soon as your opponent’s ball is in the air. True, you might think it, but you don’t say it. As a supporter of your club team, following a match as it reaches its conclusion, you wouldn’t suddenly shout ‘go in the water’ to the opposition’s ball. You have more respect for the game than that.
Why should fans be any different!
Most of us are bemused by screams of ‘mashed potato’ or ‘baba-booey’ when we watch PGA Tour events. The incessant calls of ‘get in the hole’ when someone tees off on a par five are equally mystifying but we have grown accustomed to this rather childish behaviour. Let’s be kind and say that such shouts are supportive of a player’s efforts. Shouting ‘get in the bunker’ is anything but. And judging by Justin Thomas’s comments, the fan in question had already been niggling away at him and Luke List.
"I never want to lose fans, or have people root against me,” Thomas said after the tournament was over. “I just didn’t see a place for that particular person to be yelling at us things that weren’t necessary over and over again. I over reacted and should not have had him kicked out. I feel bad for it, but was more doing so because again I felt the stuff he was saying was completely unnecessary. I love all my fans and to hear that I’ve lost quite a few because of that, isn’t fun. So I’m sorry to all."
At 24, Justin Thomas is only the third player (after Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods) in the past 30 years to have amassed eight PGA wins before the age of 25. He is a popular player and it is unlikely that this incident will have any long lasting effect on his popularity or his reputation.
I’m disappointed that Thomas felt the need to apologise at all. I have no issue with the fan being ejected or Justin Thomas’s no-nonsense attitude. The game of golf may be evolving in order to appeal to new generations of golfers, but that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the elements that make golf the exceptional sport that it is. Respect is at the heart of that and if we choose to trample over it then that baying mob of imbeciles will be knocking on the door at every tournament.
If that happens and fans can’t be better behaved then they can expect to find themselves further and further away from the action. Most professional golfers are well used to fans being noisy but at some stage they will start asking for the ropes – and the fans who are so important to the game – to be moved back. And that will be a backward step for everyone.
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