USGA to U.S. Open Fans at Bethpage: Have Fun but Behave

By: Jay Flemma


The USGA has an important message for everyone going to this year's U.S. Open: Have a great time but be considerate and respectful to the players or be gone.

"The New York crowd is always a special crowd, with great energy, and excitement is great, but it's one thing to be knowledgeable of the game and good golf fans . . . and I know we'll see that . . . it's another thing to inject yourself into the proceedings," explained Reg Jones, the USGA's representative and liaison at Bethpage. "We've got a set of rules that govern decorum, and we ask the patrons to follow that, because good sportsmanship is part of the game and that means the patrons as well as the players." Make no mistake: both the USGA and the entire golf world will be watching to see which societal profile of New York will show up - the respectful, reserved, and knowledgeable golf fans, or the crude, drunk, ugly casual fans that blighted Bethpage in 2002.

Under the guise of calling it "the People's Open," fans were allowed - indeed, in some circles encouraged - to interact with certain players in an aggressive manner and grandstand for the TV cameras. Video clips of fans who heckled Sergio Garcia were broadcast on the sports highlights almost as much as golf shots. Patrons shouted what club to hit to touring pros even though the person shouting couldn't hit the back end of a mule with a yardstick, much less a 5-iron approach out of the rough to the 15th green. On Sunday, the grandstands flanking the 17th green chanted obscenities at each other that were deftly edited out by the TV production crew. But these displays were still nothing short of a crazy, beer-fueled orgiastic frenzy of drunken machismo fit more for Gate D of a Jets game than our national golf championship.

That year, New York fans were almost encouraged and expected, indeed empowered by some in the media, to bring the same alcohol-fueled bravado we're forced to endure in Scottsdale to the U.S. Open simply because (we're told) "it's a New York thing." The result was the ugliest fan behavior since Shinnecock in 1986, when Greg Norman showed he knew exactly how to handle hecklers - challenge them to a couple of rounds behind the woodshed with a snarling ex-rugby player and shark hunter.

See if your buddy Jack Daniels can bail you out of that mess.

Well let's all get something perfectly straight: Heckling a golfer is nothing more than a brutal, bilious insult to the game.

"We want to make the tournament is a fair test of conditions for all contestants, and certainly heckling any players, for any reason, is not something we define as good behavior," Jones declared. "So please show restraint, and show everyone that the great golf fans of New York City don't need to inject themselves into the tournament."

Happily, since 2003 it's pretty much been one strike and you're gone. The fan at Olympia Fields who heckled Vijay Singh over his comments about Annika Sorenstam was removed instantly. So was the jerk who recently shouted "Figjam!" at Phil Mickelson at the Players Championship a few weeks ago. Security also immediately ejected the lug-nut who fired off an air-horn on Sunday at Winged Foot two years ago while Monty was finishing his round with a double-bogey.

Worse still, some fans think the behavior is sanctioned because they read about it in the papers. One fan at Winged Foot distracted Angel Cabrera as he played his tee shot on the fifth hole on Sunday, shouting, "Argentina no va ganar La Copa Mundial," ("You know Argentina won't win the World Cup"). Mamaroneck's finest sent him to another hole. Later, the same guy - looking resplendent in his "Bushwood Caddie Program" combat boots, fatigue shorts and 15 (yes 15!) empty beer cups was seen rummaging through the trash looking for Phil Mickelson's drive on 17. I'm not kidding!

When I caught up with him and asked why he was acting that way, he replied, "Because I read that we should in [name deleted]'s article in the local paper."

Like a video replay, they do what we say. There's the power of the press on display, but certainly not its finest hour.

Thankfully, it seems fans are casting a jaundiced eye on drunk, rowdy fans. One fan, who also attended the 2004 and 2005 PGA Championships said, "The best that can be said about it is that the media seems to think such conduct sells the event and build a buzz. But to me it's like a traffic accident, you can't help looking from the road, but also can't help wishing it didn't happen."

Other fans were quick to condemn it. "This is golf, not football," said one veteran of attending majors in the greater NYC area. "It will be long and hot this week and some people will feel the need to act out just to get attention. If the media didn't give them the attention, maybe they wouldn't do it."

Maybe "everyone's a member at Bethpage" sounds nice on TV, but everyone is most certainly NOT a member during U.S. Open week. It is the People's Country Club, but "the People's Open" doesn't imply free license to act like a lunkhead. Sure, there will be many golf-loving New Yorkers out to celebrate great golf, cheer the world's greatest players and create an exciting atmosphere for the competition. But for all the "savvy New York golf fans" in attendance, there are still a few loudmouth mean drunks, and conduct like the taunting of Garcia - mob justice for the "sin" of not backing down from Tiger Woods - and the juvenile and sexually offensive chants from the gallery at 17 have no place in the legitimately competitive golf world.

The USGA should be credited for trying to foster a family-oriented product in an age where sporting events are quickly drifting away from being civil or affordable. The organization keeps prices reasonable and endeavors to promote a first class, blue-collar ethic to golf and the way they conduct their tournaments. Yet occasionally - and wrongfully - members of the media unfairly brand them as Luddites.

Sometime, somewhere, some journalist might encourage the patrons for this year's U.S. Open at Bethpage to be rowdy. "Add a little New York flavor" to the festivities" was the rallying cry back in 2002. Well, take some sage advice: don't do it.

"We will ask our spectators to point out people who engage in unacceptable behavior, and security will be present to deal with any situations that may arise," said Jones.

The message is clear. Have a great time. But this is our national championship. Treat it accordingly. Help keep boorish, drunken crazies on a tight leash. Such displays are anathema to a true sportsman's soul. That's what makes golf great; its players live by that creed.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.


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