New York Nuance - Noise versus Nuisance

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Can Bethpage set new standard on crowd conduct this week?
Posted on
May 15, 2019
M. James Ward in ,
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

My father's family came from New York City -- specifically the Bronx -- so I feel qualified to speak about a topic that has received plenty of attention via media -- especially those from outside the New York area specifically and America generally.

The return to Bethpage for the 101st PGA Championship has brought back into discussion the outlandish antics of the few who attempt to make themselves a clear nuisance with their juvenile behavior.

Behind the architectural curtain - Bethpage Black is Back at 101st PGA Championship. Courtesy of Patrick Kravitz (PGA of America)

Over the years golf has had instances where golf fans believe the purchase of a ticket to attend an event gives them unlimited and unchecked license to say what they wish -- whenever they wish -- to whoever they wish. The impact of fans has not always been geared to those from outside the United States. One of the most noted happened in 1962 when Arnold Palmer was playing a home game match for the US Open at Oakmont versus his newest challenger Jack Nicklaus. The partisan crowd wanted Arnie in a big time way and Nicklaus was bombarded with chants of "Ohio fats" and signs indicating to "hit it here" into the rough. Nicklaus triumphed and was famous for saying he simply put on blinders and was oblivious to the chaos. No wonder Nicklaus won 18 majors!

The rise of Long Island into major championship scenery first took shape during the 3rd round of the US Open in 1986. Greg Norman was leading the championship but after double-bogeying the 13th hole and losing the outright lead a fan muttered to the Great White Shark when walking to the 14th hole that -- "Norman, you're choking." Greg answered back that when he finished the round he'd be happy to engage the fan directly in the parking lot. Clearly, the testosterone was ramping up big time.

Greg Norman during fourth round The Open Championship 1986, Turnberry Ailsa Course,Ayrshire,Scotland.© TGPL /
Greg Norman © TGPL /

Fast forward to 2002 when Bethpage Black first hosted the US Open and the deluge of comment endured by Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard had a nervous habit of constantly regripping the club and when exuberant pro-Tiger Woods saw this they started to count the times out loud as Garcia went through his gyrations. Garcia's response was far less direct than Norman's but he simply showed his exasperation to the media. Needless to say, when the New Yorkers read the next day's headline it was akin to putting a match to gasoline and the abuse resumed. 

In recent years the platform has found a home at Ryder Cup Matches -- notably on American soil. The 1991 matches at Kiawah -- poorly labeled as "The War at the Shore" created a legitimization for fans to think they were in the foxhole and their job was to eviscerate the enemy. Throughout the 1990s Colin Montgomerie received the wrath of a dedicated minority of American galleries. To be fair, Monty, at times, helped dig his own hole with his curt replies and overall boorish behavior.

Colin Montgomerie. Final day Singles of the Ryder Cup Matches 2004 © Matthew Harris / TGPL the golf picture library
Colin Montgomerie © Matthew Harris / TGPL the golf picture library

Yet, it was the 2016 Ryder Cup Matches at Hazeltine National in Minnesota that went beyond past situations in which a range of players were accosted. Danny Willett, the Masters champ that year had the unfortunate task in defending his brother who had made disparaging e-mail comments about Americans in general. The payback found its way to Danny's door step whenever he played. But the abuse continued with other players and even spouses targeted. The heated nature of partisans cast a clear black-eye on the nature of the competition and the failure of those running the events to prevent the inmates from running the asylum.

At last year's US Open at Shinnecock Hills, Ian Poulter decried in the strongest terms the fan abuse he endured during the 3rd round of play. Poulter also wondered when the 2024 Ryder Cup Matches come to Bethpage if the craziness will reach even higher heights. It's a fair point but often times lost on American media because some view Poulter through an American prism of misguided patriotism.

It's very easy to simply broad brush all of New York -- especially Long Island golf fans -- and say it's an issue simply based on geography. I get really annoyed when I hear such stereotypes from those who don't live full time in the area. There's no denying the situations that have happened but I can tell you this after covering major championship play since 1980 there have been other locations beyond New York where such disgusting behavior has happened. How about what happens at the Waste Management event each year and what the PGA Tour permits?

The nuance between appropriate noise -- otherwise called clapping and rooting someone on -- and actions taken to degrade a person by verbal abuse -- should be clear to all sensible people. Bethpage is wrongly perceived as being the bastion where crazed Long Island golf fans rule the roost. That kind of connection -- real or perceived -- needs to be emphatically rejected. The issue for those running the PGA Championship is a simple one -- get control of the situation and send a clear and powerful message that past actions will not be tolerated.

US PGA - New York Nuance
Ian Poulter (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The vast majority of Long Islanders are there to root for top quality golf. No doubt there are fan favorites with the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson leading the way. But, the "look the other way" approach needs to be nipped in the bud and showing that this week at Bethpage would be a strong message not only for this week's event but with the Ryder Cup just five years away.

Unfortunately, when you permit unlimited alcohol sales you get people who believe they're entitled to act like a donkey's behind. When officials permit these libations to be guzzled time after time they are countenancing the actions that follow. Cutting off alcohol sales is extreme but frankly is long overdue.

There's no question it's incredibly hard for any golfer to cocoon himself off when fans are so nearby at every hole. But I urge those at Bethpage not to have rabbit's ears and allow a few to influence their play. In recent events players have notified officials of fans who have gone beyond appropriate noise into the nuisance category. When that happens the violators need to be tossed promptly. Golf is a gentleman's game and it does not bode well for those competing to sink to the same level and look to take matters into their hands as Norman was wont to do in 1986. 

Bethpage is not a private club -- the regulars who play there come from a wide variety of jobs and many are indeed blue collar folks who certainly don't fit the profile of your country club type. These folks know the many fine points of the Black having played the course countless times over the years and there are times when these same individuals will feel a compunction to weigh in on what a player should do. Bethpage has been rightly called, "The People's Country Club," and the connection engendered brought many people into the sport over the years. My father, a machinist by trade, was one of those for sure.

The line between appropriate noise and outright nuisance is never an easy one to draw and I hope officials don't crack down to the point of overkill. Common sense has not been followed in the situations I outlined earlier and Bethpage can be the line in the sand where serious and blatant abuses are stopped once and for all.

The thing about New York fans is if you show an effort to connect the bond will be forever strong. If you opt to build a wall -- no pun intended to those in political office now -- you're bound to create a tension environment and ramp up the "Bronx cheers" you'll be hammered with.  With the PGA Championship set to begin I'm seriously hoping Bethpage is ground zero for a new start on what is clearly overdue in happening. Frank Sinatra was famous when singing "New York New York" that "if I can make it there I can make it anywhere". So true. Now let the golf be the storyline for a course and a part of America that clearly has added much to the game loved by millions around the world. The ball is now on the tee for that to happen.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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