My Year In Golf: Getting up close and personal at British, elsewhere made memories

Geoff Shackelford photos for my year in golf 2017 - 2 Geoff Shackelso

My Year In Golf: Getting up close and personal at British, elsewhere made memories


My Year In Golf: Getting up close and personal at British, elsewhere made memories

Intimate golf. That’s how I’ll remember 2017. Work with me here.

While other major sports allow fans to get close to the action, the cost of courtside and field-level seats is prohibitive for all but a few. But even within the most bloated golf tournament setup, professional golf lets fans near tee and greens and awkwardly close to players when drives go wayward.

We need more intimate golf encounters.

While we love how social media lets us live vicariously through players on vacation or lip syncing on their jet rides home, the bonds are synthetic compared to the experience of eavesdropping on golfers and their caddies discussing a shot. No television technology can replace the experience of hearing an elite player strike the ball or inevitable post-shot divot inspection.
Which naturally brings to mind Erin, Wis.

HARTFORD, WI - JUNE 18: Eddie Pepperell of England plays his shot from the sixth tee during the final round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills on June 18, 2017 in Hartford, Wisconsin. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Fans kept their distance at Erin Hills. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The 2017 U.S. Open should be remembered as a success because Erin Hills crowned a worthy champion, sold all tickets and finished on time. Yet what was the takeaway from some fans witnessing Wisconsin’s first U.S. Open? We were so far from the action.

This memory could be chalked to the massive scale of Erin Hills and its gigantic features, but also the decision to place ropes increasingly farther away from the action.

Recent U.S. Open’s at Pinehurst and Chambers Bay left similar impressions. More tournaments are doing the same in the name of security or in putting corporate tents ahead of everyday fans.

Contrast this with the USGA’s match-play events, where fans essentially are not corralled in many, if any way. The paying customers are free to walk the fairways with players, often leading to chats with their friends, family and media. It’s as old school as you get, with only a few marshals and a moving rope to give players enough breathing space when crowds swell.

When the U.S. Amateur and Walker Cup came to my home city of Los Angeles this year, and it was so fun sharing with fans the kind of intimate golf viewing that only standard bearers, volunteer scorers and media are accustomed to. The small but enthusiastic galleries attending Riviera’s U.S. Amateur were treated to compelling quarterfinal and semifinal action before being rewarded with Doug Ghim and Doc Redman battling in a 36-hole epic for the ages. Despite combatants unknown to all but a few amateur golf followers, fans were engrossed in their back-and-forth duel. They were also entertained by Ghim’s and his father Jeff’s entertaining synergy.

The intimate, communal experience of discussing what was playing out only added to the drama and caused some to second guess why they’d ever spectate again at the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open at Riviera.

Geoff Shackelford photos for my year in golf 2017 - 4

The Walker Cup drew large crowds at LA Country Club. (Geoff Shackelford/Golfweek)

A similar thrill engaged L.A. fans at the Walker Cup, where much larger crowds came to watch an event most were unfamiliar with given that no significant team match-play event has ever been played in the area. This lack of a strong connection to the format could have been a buzzkill, yet the freedom to roam fairways with the protagonists led to genteel crowds applauding quality shots equally, regardless of country.

Most amazing of all? Notoriously fickle golfers thrown into an oddly informal way of playing among spectators never seemed flustered by the proceedings.

There is a lesson in these events and the zaniest of all 2017 shows: Jordan Spieth’s wayward drive at Royal Birkdale. I’ll never forget the tee box view as Spieth hit a high, cutting push right, seemingly compounding what was already a round trending poorly.

Aided by a crosswind, the ball ballooned toward the highest dune on the property, bounced off of some unsuspecting fans’ head and ricocheted another 30 yards or so down an embankment. Knowing this could be one epic recovery shot, I headed right toward the search parties looking left of the big dune, and wasn’t surprised to hear when someone announced the ball was actually on the driving range side.

Geoff Shackelford photos for my year in golf 2017 - 2

Jordan Spieth took his time and it paid off at The Open Championship. (Geoff Shackelford/Golfweek)

Those 15 minutes or so of Spieth taking control of the chaotic situation while Michael Greller ran up and down the dunes was unforgettable, but getting to share the fan euphoria of witnessing history added to everyone’s memories. The entire episode should be another lesson for tournament organizers in how fascinating golf can be when viewed up close.

The front-row seat grew tournament golf until the 1950s or so and before television came along. But in a competitive sports marketplace, retro events should be encouraged. Just as insurance giant Zurich reaped the benefits of a move to a two-man team event, a smart sponsor should look at a limited-gallery event with better fan access. Longtime stroke-play events should look at breaking down rope barriers on Sundays to let fans walk behind players over the last nine holes. Because more than any Snapchat story or autograph signed, intimate tournament viewing can build connections to the game that will ensure the health of championship golf.



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