2004: Handling hecklers

Golf is different from other sports, for many reasons, most of them good. The latest evidence comes from recent sports pages. Baseball rests uneasily in the heat of a federal steroids investigation. Meanwhile, golf’s major headline-grabbing, must-comment issue of the moment involves the dastardly deed of heckling.

That’s right, golf’s Category 5 Scandal has to do with a hiccup in gallery decorum and a player’s angry reaction to it. In the grand comparative scheme, if that blemish prompts rants, then it’s reason for the game to celebrate its relatively clean face.

The latest violation of golf propriety also was good because it created awareness. Spectators and players can learn from it and know how to act better moving forward. A “silver lining,” commissioner Tim Finchem said.

A PGA Tour event isn’t an NHL or NFL game, just as the opera isn’t a rock concert. Etiquette doesn’t cross over. You can scream when Justin Timberlake sings but not when Dmitry Khvorostovsky does. You can hurl insults at a visiting hockey or football goon but don’t bring the venom to the golf course.

It’s simple, really. Show up at a golf tournament, cheer all you want after and in between shots, party all you want, but respect the competition. Don’t interfere with play and don’t disrupt a pro’s concentration. Don’t act Cameron Indoor when at Augusta National.

“We want (fans) to support loudly, I hope, good play, and if they want to make a comment about bad play, that’s fine,” Finchem said. “But to try to intentionally distract a player . . . (is) just not acceptable.”

A yell when a golfer stands over the ball is not unlike the passing of gas in the quiet of church. Either way silence is pierced. And neither act passes the smell test.

Davis Love III, of course, was bothered by a Tiger Woods fan yelling “Whoop!” and “No Love!” and emphatically demanded order during the recent WGC-Accenture Match Play final.

Some columnists subsequently jumped on Love, not the fan, calling the veteran pro, among other things, a drip, a crybaby and Davis Love the Nerd. Finchem got a whiff of that ink and called it “smash-mouth journalism.”

Love’s instinct to combat perceived misconduct was right. But his execution wasn’t, which he admitted to Finchem. Tour protocol says if a player has a problem with a fan, he should tell the walking scorer to get an official or security to handle the problem.

What we have here is a case of growing pains. Finchem took a bullet for the Tour in admitting his organization has a responsibility to educate fans new to the game and to get on-course personnel to react sooner, so a player doesn’t have to police the situation himself. It doesn’t look good when a wealthy man who makes $700,000 in a week barks at someone who might not earn that in the next 15 years.

Love has had rabbit ears and a Tour cop mentality before. He is a Southern gentleman who grew up under the guidelines of traditional golf decorum. He has strong beliefs on how to behave properly. He is more sensitive than the average pro to the noise of the more raucous Tiger Woods era. That was clear in 2002, when he stared down loud but supportive spectators on Nos. 16 and 17 during the final round of the Western Open. The first came when someone yelled “Rip it, Davis!” as he addressed his drive, the second when a Chicago-area assistant pro screamed “Juggo!” (not “choke,” as originally suspected) after a Love approach shot from trees.

“Fans were yelling and screaming all day – while you’re putting, before and after shots,” Love said then. “They tell you how putts break. You’re not supposed to yell at players and give advice. It’s annoying. We have to crack down on it. Fans are overstepping their bounds. The U.S. Open (at Bethpage) was ridiculous and now they’re copying that. I don’t like going to the ropes and yelling at people, but it seems like I do it every week now.”

Phil Mickelson has called his experience with the vocal Bethpage crowds one of the best times of his life. It follows that Love and dissenting players would be best served to develop a thicker skin, or muffled hearing, while leaving enforcement to others. Tough hide pays in this Woods era of new fans. The Tour purse for a single season has increased about $170 million since the year Woods turned pro – from $70.7 million in 1996 to an estimated $240 million this year.

Golfers are further fortunate because they play for that gold mine without being ripped by fans, as pros in team sports are. The Tour is a traveling circus; a city’s team is a daily soap opera. Passions fly higher in the latter.

A player’s first obligation is to himself, to do whatever it takes mentally to make sure he competes without getting rattled. The deodorant commercial counseled, “Don’t let them see you sweat.” Woods understands. Trained as a kid to block out distraction, he advises to not let fans know they’ve annoyed you – advice Colin Montgomerie should have heeded for years.

Handling nuisance with humor also can work, not that every serious-faced touring pro has a Billy Crystal gear.

“Whenever I’ve been heckled, I always believed it was best to kill them with kindness,” longtime Tour funnyman Peter Jacobsen said. “With a smile or funny comment – something to try to bring them into my camp rather than keep them out of my camp.”

And so it could have played out at La Costa:

Fan (four or five times): “No Love!”

Davis Love III (smiling): “No love? Somebody around here not getting any (love)?”

(Laughter.)

“We’ll fix that. Here, here’s a sleeve. Love balls. Spread ’em around. But first, if you don’t mind, let me pound this drive.”

(Smiles.)

Suddenly, peace and Love.

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