Did golf fans cross the line at Bethpage Black?

Should golf etiquette be demanded outside the ropes, too? Our writers debate
Brooks Koepka of the United States plays a second shot on the 13th hole from the rough during the final round of the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

Even before the 2019 PGA Championship, Bethpage Black had earned a reputation for rowdy fans.

U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009 were packed. Fans hooted and hollered for Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, having a good ol' time. A decade after the last major, the New York-area fans returned to Long Island in droves again, rooting on Mickelson and Woods, along with the latest crop of young studs. Announcers on TNT and CBS were quick to praise their enthusiasm until halfway through the back nine on championship Sunday. With Brooks Koepka bleeding shots, and Dustin Johnson trying to mount a comeback, things got weird.

CBS Announcer Nick Faldo chastised the crowd for shouting during Johnson's swing on the 17th hole, a shot that ended up missing the green and leading to a crushing bogey. Meanwhile, Koepka dealt with fans openly rooting for Johnson, chanting "DJ, DJ" and "choke". Koepka ultimately won and shrugged it off.

"It's New York. What do you expect, when you're half-choking it away," he said.

Did the fans go too far? Bill Irwin thinks so, but Jason Scott Deegan isn't so sure. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Are golf fans becoming too obnoxious?

Bill Irwin: Bethpage crowd not in the spirit of golf

We’re at a crossroads. Golf has always been a sport that set itself apart in the way its participants conduct themselves. Honor, integrity, decorum, respect, and fair competition are more than words in golf -- they are considered the fabric of the sport. After all, this is a game where you are expected to call penalties on yourself. (Consider the contrast with other sports, i.e. baseball, where “stealing signs” and anything else you can do to get an advantage is part and parcel of the competition).

Golf has proudly paraded its special qualities. And those special qualities are considered to carry over to the conduct of the spectators – patrons, as they say at The Masters. Spectators in golf have always had a special obligation to march in step with the players. I think of all the marshalls holding up “Quiet” signs. I think of the “golf clap,” which, while it has become a laughable caricature, nonetheless conveys the restraint one is expected to show while watching a golf tournament in person.

You’re not supposed to “act out” at a golf tournament—unless, of course, it is the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the lone week each year when anything goes. At all other tournaments, making noise during a swing has always been a no-no. Remember those times when Stevie Williams grabbed cameras as he was trying to protect Tiger from distractions during his swing.

Golf has always been a sport where you’re expected to root for someone, not against anyone. That wasn’t the case at Bethpage. As the fans embraced Johnson, they dissed Koepka, and even tossed vulgarities at his girlfriend, according to Golf Digest. The conduct of the fans rankled Koepka’s playing partner, Harold Varner III, to the point where he said he had some choice words of his own for the Bethpage crowd, which he deemed was being grossly unfair to Koepka.

I’m concerned that someday a horde of fans will go beyond the pale. This can happen when there’s a crowd. I’m always a bit uncomfortable at sporting events because so many fans seem to be in a state of rage. Alcohol exacerbates the chances something may ignite. It’s happened at soccer matches. It’s happened when fans storm the court or field after a particularly momentous upset or triumph. It happened in tennis, when Monica Seles was stabbed with a knife by a Steffi Graf fan.

Could something happen at a golf tournament? Can a lone rope really restrain a rowdy crowd? Koepka mentioned that he noticed that people broke through on no. 18 and were racing down the fairway. He referred to seeing 15 cops trying to keep the crowd at bay and he said it must have made quite a photo.

Fans feel increasingly empowered to say and do anything at most sporting events. I feel like they see themselves as part of the game and are increasingly playing a role in it.

Let’s jump ahead to consider the Ryder Cup at Bethpage in 2024. Is there any chance the New York crowd would tolerate a gesture such as “The Concession,” when Jack Nicklaus conceded a three-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that resulted the 1969 Ryder Cup Matches finishing in a 16-16-tie?

Even Koepka noted it could get crazy: “Good luck to Europe, with the fans.” It’ll make for great theatre, but is this really where we want golf to go?

Jason Scott Deegan: Let the fans have their fun

So, if the fans went too far, then why did Koepka not call them out? He actually used their negative energy to motivate his own game. That, to me, is a major part of being an athlete. Can you successfully compete when everything - the fans, the refs (there are none in golf), the opposition - are all pulling against you?

"Like I said, I think it actually helped," Koepka said. "It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, okay, all right. I've got everybody against me. Let's go. Yeah, I mean, I definitely heard the cheers, too."

This kind of fan madness is exactly why players love the Ryder Cup so much. It creates atmosphere. Buzz. Angst and Ecstasy. Fans love rooting for perceived good and evil. In America, the Euros are the enemy. In Europe, the Americans are the spoiled brats who need to be humbled. What's wrong in bringing some of this into tournament golf?

I'm a Mickelson fan. I used to root against Woods relentlessly. Does that make me petty or jealous? Maybe a little, but it doesn't make me a bad person. I'm rooting for my guy. If Tiger making bogey helps Mickelson, I'm happy. There's an unwritten rule in country club sports like tennis and golf that you don't cheer when someone makes a mistake. Yet in football you hear large roars when the yellow flag is thrown for a penalty. When my son's baseball team makes an error, the opposing fans send the message loud and clear that they're thrilled we just screwed up.

If golf wants to be like the more popular sports - football, baseball and basketball - it needs to do away with the golf clap and embrace the roars, the energy, the edgy conflict. Why are so many golf tournaments so sleepy? Golf needs to step into the real world if it wants to remain relevant. Taunting isn't acceptable in any arena, but if you chant "Red Sox!" when the Yankees are batting or "DJ" in between Koepka's shots, what's the bother? This is what fans DO.

I don't watch much NBA, but I happened to catch the double overtime thriller the Toronto Raptors won this weekend over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto super fan and star rapper Drake was sitting in the front row, openly trash talking the Bucks and generally wearing the emotions of the game on his sleeves. Golf fans should be allowed to do this without fear of being rebuked by other golf fans. Anything to make the event more exciting.

There also was no rope or cops between Drake's front row seat and the action on the court. Being this close to the action is why we love being fans. We want to feel part of it. Otherwise, the game is meaningless. Let us enjoy our moment, because, come Monday, we'll be back grinding away at our everyday lives.

Like Bill, I don't support yelling in someone's back swing, and of course I don't condone fans harassing a player's girlfriend in the gallery. That's over the line. There are idiot fans everywhere. There's not much we can do about them. But maybe it's time to reconsider what a boisterous golf fan really is. The game could use a little New York grit and a little more sizzle at other tournaments.

Bill Irwin has been the managing editor of Golf Odyssey for nearly twenty years. During that time he has written hundreds of golf travel stories for the publication at destinations all over the world. For most of his assignments he has traveled anonymously and unannounced. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of Virginia, he earned a PhD in American History with a focus on the history of tourist destinations and has written books about Niagara Falls and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
232 Comments
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I totally disagree. The fan makes the sport. Look at basketball where you have to concentrate on ball handling, read the defense and score at the same time all that the same time while fan are screaming in the ears. NBA dont control fan. Fan controls the game and it grows the game. Its the new generation. Suits and formal were time of past. The golf is evolving and we need to change our mentality and thought process. Look at Waste Management, its the most attended event other then major. There is on one control, keep quiet during the player swing. Other then all is far in love and war.

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I agree with Mr. Irwin that the crowd went too far. It all comes down to the Golden Rule, would you want some crowd treating you that way (I don't think so). Alcohol loosens peoples tongues and actions too far and the example of tennis' Monica Seles is appropriate, as spectators are even closer in golf. I won't even get into certain politicians cheating at golf, that's a topic for another day.

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Look at the alternatives take the fans away what are you left with. 4 boring dudes playing exceptional golf. Fans are the barometer of how well your sports going, usa the land of the free but dont enjoy your golf please atmosphere adds so much more to an event if the fans are roaring. 99% are respectful and every professional golfer would never want to restrict a gallery from getting involved in a tournament. It lifts some players and distracts other except it like the rough on the fairway its just another element that can make a shot a bit tougher. Learn to play in the rough makes you a better golfer, so learn to play in a boisterous crowd and embrace it.

Commented on

I would think that any person yelling anything at any player during their swing should be ejected from the venue. if you are so uncouth or inebriated that you can't control yourself you should not be able to influence any players ability to do their days work, or any other fan from enjoying their day at the tournament.

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I am all for maintaining the dignity/decorum traditionally expected in golf. There is no place for the rowdy/inappropriate behavior that is becoming more & more prevalent these days. Enough already!!

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I really appreciate this opportunity that "Golf Advisor" has given us to express our opinion about a game that is near and dear - so thanks G.A.! The fans are not bad people, but to assume that they are educated in the rules of golf and "etiquette" is faulty thinking. Golf is on TV every weekend - use this as a time and place to educate the fans and to grow the game in the right way. Instead of talking all the time about how far the ball was driven, or how much this player made last year, or the number of FED-EX points they have, or the constant droning on about Tiger Woods - maybe some basic info on the history of the game, how it developed, and how and why the etiquette of the game is second to none. Maybe this is the place to start, instead of beating up on the people who simply don't know any better??

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God help us if golf fans and the game in general hopes to become like other sports. Respect to Jason Scott Deegan, but do we want a game where the players act like foolish children when they cross the goal line, protest the most minor foul call, and do anything but EARN their outlandish salaries?

Golf was designed to be played in an atmosphere of fairness and sportsmanship. Even this admirable concept is now threatened. If it takes discipline and policing, so be it. Let us not lose the greatest game to slovenly behavior. And, let's not forget the lessons of role model examples for our young people.

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Golf was designed to be played by amateurs. Bobby Jones and others of his ilk played the game for sport. Professional golfers play the game for money. To put enough money into a tournament, you need ordinary people to pay to come to the event. Putting the PGA near the largest city in the country ensures a big crowd and a big gate. New Yorkers are enthusiastic about professional sports. They do not follow or care about high school or college sports. The PGA is a professional event and naturally the crowd is enthusiastic about their favorite players and root for them vocally.

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The constant yelling “ in the hole” is a huge irritation, especially when the hole is 400 yds. away.

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It was over the top. Do those sad people think its that important that they become the center of attention and act like fools just to be seen on TV?
They should lose their rights to have the Ryder cup. The world will be watching and they will tarnish our country. Its only a matter of time before some fool will yell during someone's backdating.

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Absolutely
Too much booze....A very boorish bunch.....golf is not soccer!

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Did golf fans cross the line at Bethpage Black?