A recent foursomes match (alternate shot) pitting the team of Dustin Johnson and Colin Morikawa against the team of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas was played at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. An estimated 1,000 overly exuberant and unrestrained spectators crowded the participants throughout the match. A winner-take-all purse of $2 million was made available to the winners by the host sponsor. However, the real action was among the fans who had quite a bit of dough riding on the final result.
Not surprisingly, tensions rose and the crowd became a tad unruly as the match seesawed throughout the day. Alcohol, as always, played a factor. Teeing off on the 5th hole, Dustin Johnson snapped his head back toward a particular fan as he heard a loud “hook it” in the middle of his backswing. Jordan Spieth looked angrily at his ball in the right rough of the par 4 8th. The ball was improbably embedded in the dry turf – clearly the result of someone’s heavily placed foot.
The match ended when Colin Morikawa made a long birdie putt on the 17th hole. But not before there had been three separate fistfights among the fans, two balls mysteriously lost and at least five rough-destined shots rebounded (kicked) back into the fairway. This match, of course, never really happened. However, had it been played with similarly skilled participants 180 years ago, it likely would have included as many or more of the described transgressions.
In the early days of golf, when foursomes challenge matches were the most common form of competition, the best golfers of the day – Old Tom Morris, Allan Robertson, Willie Park among others – would travel to and from their home courses for matches of this sort. Because betting among the spectators was the rule of the day, the types of misconduct described did occur regularly and were just part of the spectacle.
This takes us to the present-day feud involving Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. We all know the story by now. It began a couple of years ago when Brooks complained about slow-play on the PGA Tour after viewing a video of Bryson painfully computing yardage and air density before pulling the trigger on a short approach out of the rough. The ongoing rivalry culminated with the eye-roll and mumbled expletive-laden video of Koepka being interviewed during the 2021 PGA Championship as Bryson loudly passed by in the background. The fans then got into the action by constantly yelling “Brooksie” at DeChambeau as he played in the subsequent tournament. Koepka has added fuel to the fire with some timely tweets.
I was watching the Golf Channel recently as Brandel Chamblee and Justin Leonard discussed the interplay between the two players. Both felt the actions between the two were inconsistent with the genteel and honorable nature of the game and that fan behavior had gotten out of hand. I do agree that goading spectators to spew invective during tournament play – as Koepka has appeared to do – is off-base, but I think that rivalries on their own – even feuds – help to generate greater interest in the game. While no one wants to see golf balls kicked into bunkers or fans brawling in the gallery – a little awkwardness among competitors adds some intrigue and even some fun into watching an otherwise clinical round of tournament golf among mostly polite, partially college-educated, country club-raised white guys.
The good-natured camaraderie among players like Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas is certainly nice to see, but I kind of miss the less good-natured rivalries of recent times when Tiger Woods would ignore Sergio Garcia or poke fun at Phil Mickelson’s sincerity. Those were nothing compared to the vitriol displayed among competitors and fans during the Ryder Cup matches in the ’80s and ’90s. Paul Azinger and the late Seve Ballesteros were two of the most memorable combatants during that period. And the “War by the Shore” at Kiawah in 1991 was certainly the low point in golf fan behavior.
I grew up in the latter stages of the Big Three. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were the dominant players in the ’60s and early ’70s. Arnold Palmer was the handsome, pants-hitching, go-for-broke crowd favorite throughout his prime-playing career. Nicklaus was the pudgy, crew-cut wearing, slow-playing upstart. Nicklaus was also a couple of other things – long off the tee and most notably – a winner. Because of Palmer’s popularity, his fans – Arnie’s Army – made early life on the Tour rather difficult for Nicklaus. There were taunts and outright insults about his portly appearance. Nicklaus always took it in stride and never reacted. Unlike his father who often had to be restrained while following his beloved son.
Aside from the occasional outlier like a Ben Curtis or a Y.E. Yang, in a major golf tournament on the PGA Tour, there are probably 30 golfers in the field who could reasonably expect to win. So, rivalries like Palmer/Nicklaus or Woods/Mickelson rarely result in head-to-head, final round theatrics in a major. But the key point is that rivalries divide fan loyalties and create the kind of atmosphere seen in major team sports venues. As long as fistfights and fan interference are avoided, I see this as good for fans of the game and the business of the game.