Rulebook: Where Do We Go From Here?

by Rich McLean, Golf Canada Referee

Begging your indulgence. I’m stretching the rules a bit this month to look at the “unwritten” side of things… 

“Kindness and politeness are not overrated at all. They’re underused.” – Tommy Lee Jones 

Catcalls from the crowd, inappropriate language, needling and teasing, outright bullying. Sounds about right for your average schoolyard (at least it was when I was growing up), but how about a PGA Tour event? 

Crowd reaction and interaction are nothing new. They’ve been around as long as there have been live events to watch. The speed and violence of some sports just seem to bring the wild behavior out in people naturally. And yes, even the Ryder, Presidents and Solheim Cups have their boisterous side, from a nationalistic slant. But in the last number of years, these types of behaviors normally reserved for the games of the adrenaline-fueled, have seeped into those sports that one would consider more laid back and respectful, like professional golf, and most noticeably the PGA Tour. 

I’m not saying that golf has always been like a Sunday church service until now. There have always been some notable happenings or oddities that would start outside the ropes and make their way onto the playing field, but these would usually be rare and bizarre enough that they would be reserved for the nightly sports blooper reels. Rollen Stewart with his rainbow wig and “John 3:16” sign, Morgana The Kissing Bandit, a drunken college student stripped to the skin, streaking their way across a ball field or golf course on a dare… 

Now it seems that these interactions between spectator and player (lately, in both directions) have become more pointed and personal. Add in a dozen TV cameras, a few dozen more microphones, and a few hundred cell phones and you’ve got yourself a party. 

It’s no secret that the dynamic between fan and athlete in golf experienced a major shift in around 1997 when Tiger Woods came on the scene, bringing with him a new and fresh group of enthusiastic followers who may not have been as familiar with the game as some, but showed up with a zeal that had been missing from golf for a while. To a lesser extent, a similar bump occurred in 1991 when John Daly ran away with the PGA Championship, but he was a relative unknown at the time, so the comparison really ends there. 

Tiger, as so many have said, “moved the needle”, and that was good. But with the good also came the not-so-good and the outright bad. It’s bound to happen when someone is popular, and it’s not Tiger’s fault in any way. It’s just the nature of things. 

Where the current issue comes in is in golf’s seemingly decreasing ability, or willingness, to police itself and nip these incidents in the bud. Add to this the tour’s endorsement of social media as a driver of content and interaction to the tune of a $40 million USD fund that rewards players for being “out there”. Another case of good intention that has yielded both good, and bad results. Sometimes you do get what you pay for… 

“It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the end.” – Douglas Adams 

We seem to be at a point where the pendulum is swinging too far in the opposite direction. Here’s hoping that we see it return to near centre, where it belongs. Fans and players both need to get back to a place where there is both mutual respect and an appreciation of what each brings to the game. As we all know, balance in golf is extremely important. To the fans, let’s dispense with the name-calling and goading and get back to appreciating the great play that the PGA Tour gives us week in and week out. To the players, let’s get back to the task at hand. Tip your cap to appreciative applause, and don’t take that bait when someone tries to call you out. To the PGA Tour, use your sphere of influence to get this stuff under control and restore the shine to the game. 

Does golf deserve continued growth by attracting new fans and promoting growth in areas where the game hasn’t been before? Absolutely. However, it doesn’t need to be done at all costs.

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