After attending the US Open last weekend at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York, I came to a realization that I’d somewhat have been avoiding for years- there’s a disconnect between fans and players. Now I know that can sound too generalized and perhaps my small sample size of live events (5 tournament rounds since 2014) is too minuscule to make a fair assessment, but I do believe that golfers on the PGA Tour, and perhaps more broadly professional golfers across the globe, need to make a more conceited effort to interact with fans.
Let’s start with my observations that I made on Saturday, where 36,000 fans descended to Eastern Long Island to watch the best golfers on Earth compete on arguably the most grueling course setup we have ever seen. Understandably, players were frustrated with the layout and frankly as a fan, I was too. I saw Justin Thomas hit an iron into hole location that went from tracking towards the hole to rolling off the back of the green. His playing partner Pat Perez did nearly the exact same thing a minute later. I saw Phil Mickelson putt a moving ball just so he wouldn’t have to putt back up a slope that at best could leave your second putt 10-12 feet away; and I witnessed Rickie Fowler, who many call this generation’s Arnold Palmer, not even acknowledge fans as he walked the back 9 en route to a 3rd round 84.
Now I know that Saturday was not a fair example of what a typical PGA Tour stop looks like, and I’m sure many players would even say they weren’t themselves last weekend, but those weren’t the only problems I saw. Smaller things last weekend bothered me- for one, did you know that players can choose before a round if they don’t want pictures taken of them?
Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, along with their playing partners, walked each round with 2 gentlemen with “PLEASE NO PHOTOS” signs, and those volunteers were instructed to kick out any fan who pulled their camera out to take photos or videos of the eventual winner and world #1. Aren’t we bordering on insanity right now? For years cell phones were banned from many PGA events- but now that phones can capture the up-close moments that fans cherish for a lifetime, without the annoying noises of digital cameras, is it really necessary for those volunteers to walk around? And if you’re wondering- “wait I saw plenty of photos of DJ and Koepka this week,” that’s because regularly 10-15 press photographers were huddled over them every shot of every round. It’s not that photos couldn’t have been taken of them, it’s that fans were explicitly not allowed to take photos of them. Does LeBron James say no to photos when he sits on the bench during a timeout or does Aaron Judge kick out fans when they try to snap a pic of him in the on-deck circle? Of course not, and golf will not succeed if it alienates it’s main selling point- that for the price of a general admission ticket you can fistbump the top players in the world and witness incredible shots just feet away from legends.
Building off of no photos- the overall demeanor of players has changed abruptly in the past few years. Even veterans like Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson are developing reputations for complaining about courses, with Watson in particular having an off-and-on relationship with fans. Golf is unique in that there isn’t a real “enemy”, sure there are opponents but ultimately you are playing against mother nature and a golf course rather than other players. I think golfers on Tour lose sight of that fact sometimes, forgetting that every player in the field plays the SAME course each day. Sure, Shinnecock on Saturday afternoon was different from the morning, but you can only control the weather and how the course will react to an extent. Overall, golf and for that matters sports, is about overcoming obstacles in the face of adversity.
That’s why I enjoyed Masters Champ Patrick Reed defending Shinnecock on Saturday evening, “The golf course is not [unfair] — they are not going to lose the golf course… where that pin placement is and everything, there is no issue whatsoever if you are in the middle of the green. You would have to hit a bad first putt to 3-putt there. I mean, you are not going to hit a good putt there and walk off with a 5. If you hit a good putt, you are either going to make birdie or you are going to make par.”
But the US Open also brought up a philosophical debate- how hard is too hard for a golf course to be played at? I agree that the course set up was a bit ridiculous, and that the greens became too fast for anyone to really go for pins. But rounds in the 60s were up for grabs throughout Father’s Day Weekend. Fowler shot -5 on Sunday and Daniel Berger and Tony Finau both played well Saturday afternoon. I know pros aren’t used to winning tournaments with multiple rounds in the 70s, but at the end of the day everyone plays the same course, and it’s nice to test their skills at the most difficult levels possible.
That being said golf is not growing like other sports, particularly football and basketball. Golf has always been associated with wealth and the higher class, but programs like the First Tee and trendy new off-course upgrades such as TopGolf mean that there is still an interest in the game. But unlike football, basketball or the other big 4 sports, golf doesn’t have the amount of events and thus crowd interest to compete right now. At best, a state might have 3-4 PGA Tour events a year. Think about that- 3 events at roughly ~20,000 attendees PER YEAR. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey hosts 16 home football games per year, and football has the least amount of games of any big 4 sport. New Yorkers legitimately only have 1-3 golf events within 5 hours of them per year- and folks in the Pacific NW might get lucky if a US Open or PGA Championship comes there way once a decade.
So when the PGA/USGA/R&A host a big time event like a major, it’s important that players know how big such an event can have on growing the game. Experts say golf’s biggest surge was when Tiger was completing a grand slam in a 12-month stretch, and TV ratings clearly show that golf peaked years ago (and the Masters is definitely watched more than other majors as well). So when the top players in the world ignore fans, don’t allow photos and for that matter don’t talk to the press, what kind of a statement is the PGA saying to its viewers? Ameteur golfers, the weekend warriors and kids trying to make their high school golf team want to come watch the stars- but the stars need to care about them too.
Instagram posts and autographs for a select few are not going to fix golf’s image problem. What’s going to fix it is letting golfers interact with the crowds more and making sure that the line between respect and rowdiness is clearly drawn. The biggest counter-argument to this whole stance is that all golfers are different, and some are more shy than others. While I get it’s difficult to interact with the crowd and still play well- I’d point to Ryder and Presidents Cups as the catalyst for change. Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed pumping up the crowds, Tiger fistpumping from the fairway, and Phil and Rickie taking selfies with the fans tell me that the golfers have the potential to do more, and that the time is now.
So continue to kick out drunk fans and those who disrespect the game, but how about more guys act like Phil, Rickie, Palmer and Nicklaus. Give back to the fans that are the ones in the background when you hoist your trophies. Give back to those who pay for your winnings and accommodations. Give back to the people who inspire you to play your best. You never know which kid outside the ropes might be playing with you inside them some day.