Tour and News

Bubba brought the noise at Medinah, and it may be here to stay

Photo: David Cannon / Getty Images

Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter encouraged fans to cheer during their opening tee shots on Saturday, a rarity in golf.

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Saturday marked the end of civilization as we know it.

Or not.

I'm so confused.

Early this morning, Ian Poulter, one half of the English rock band Poulter-Rose, was announced on the first tee in an alternate-shot match against the current Masters winner, Sir Bubba Watson, and the reigning U.S. Open champion, the Hon. Webb Simpson. Poulter turned to the crowd and asked them to make noise. While he was in his pre-shot routine. And addressing the ball. And during the holy seconds while he was making his swing.

He wasn't really doing anything original. Bubba himself started the whole thing in his Friday afternoon better-ball match, asking for crowd noise during his inaugural strike of the day. And when Poulter was done, Bubba stepped in and repeated his Friday routine.

The crowd was ridiculously amped-up, and these two emotional players gave them what they wanted.

It doesn't matter whether you think it's horrible or not. Sir Nick Faldo (he really is a sir, knighted and all that) said it was all in good fun. I think it's the further decline of golf manners, but, truly, what do I know? Life happens, and the world changes.

At the Masters in April, Bubba holed his winning putt and cried in his mother's arms before he congratulated the runner-up, Louis Oosthuizen. My colleague Jack McCallum, the Hall-of-Fame basketball writer, gently questioned the action in a Golf.com column. He got hundreds of vicious responses. I think he had it right. I know Watson was overwhelmed with emotion. It was a thrilling win. But the underlying point of the game's etiquette is to put the needs of the other player ahead of your own. Even in victory.

What happened at Medinah is different, of course. Ryder Cup golf and football are first cousins. The usual golf rules don't apply. They should (he said fuddily), but they don't. Part of Bubba's great appeal is that he doesn't care about the old rules, and at times I think that's great. After winning at Augusta, which made him an honorary member of the club, he questioned why the club had no women members. On national TV. He was ahead of the curve on that. And he's probably ahead of the curve on this.

What he's doing is giving the people what they want, and the people are always correct, right? Bubba Watson didn't grow up on Tom Watson. He grew up on WWE wrestling. More to the point, he grew up on football.

When baseball was still truly the national pastime, going back to the Bob Gibson era, people went to baseball games and watched, essentially, in worshipful silence. As society became more permissive, and as electronic scoreboards introduced racing dot games, that all changed.

And then, around the same time, football became the true national pastime. And at football games, the fans, of course, are different. They'll stand and howl for two straight hours. Running the faucet while urinating in the sink passes for good manners.

Golf's not there. Golf may be going there. The fans want to be heard. That's been true for years, in every sport. And what Bubba and Poulter are saying is that the players want to hear them. That's certainly not true for every player, but it's true for them. It was true for John Daly. It was true for Arnold Palmer.

You're tempted to say it won't catch on, that it will never happen at the Masters. I'm not so sure. The root of the Bubba-Poulter moment is fans screaming inane things at the moment the clubface and ball meet. What Ryder Cup golf does is accelerate the trend.

At a Ryder Cup, you wind up hearing more golf than you see. For every 60-year-old man out there with binoculars around his neck and a pairing sheet in his back pocket, a guy who can actually tell you how Match 2 stands and knows what AS stands for, there are a half-dozen twentysomethings wearing war paint like they're playing some arrested-adolescent version of Cowboys & Indians, yelling some ridiculous thing a split second after ball and club make contact.

It's sort of like when you're a teenager, just learning to drive, and you think that instant when the light turns green is your invitation to floor it. As you get older, you start to worry about other things, like speeding tickets and gas conservation. But the problem with youth, as the man said, is that it's wasted on the young.

Long before people started sing the tedious "Ole" song in Ian Poulter's backswing, they were yelling "Bababooey!" and "Youdaman!" and "Mashpotatoes!" Watson identified a trend and picked up on it. The Ryder Cup is a perfect testing ground for a man who does things on instinct anyhow.

Ryder Cup golf opens the doors to regular sports fans in a way no other golf event does. That's cool. That's good. Golf needs all the fans it can get. It's not a championship. It's a match. You root for one team to win and, as a consequence, the other to lose. You might have a few bucks (or a few quid) riding on the outcome. To get in, as it were, the mood, semi-adult refreshments are served.

In the grand scheme of anything meaningful in life, this is of course all meaningless. In the little corner of the world that cares about golfing traditions, this screaming business, during the swing and after the swing, represents a new and less civilized day. But a more energetic one, too.

Golf, among the many other things it is, is an opportunity to practice restraint. It's an opportunity to control one's emotions. It's about mind over matter. That's why a few people love the game, and part of why many people have no use for it at all. To play the game at a high level requires restraint. You want to throw the club, but you don't. You want to scream and yell, but you don't. And the reason you don't is because it's rude an unfair to your playing partners and opponents. While you're exercising your free will, you're breaking into another player's cone of silence. And a lot of people like to play golf in a cone of silence.

But all that is so yesterday. These days, people want to be part of the action. The people have spoken. They have sung, cheered, screamed, mash-potatoed. Things will never be the same. Send your thank-you note to Bubba.

The man, in his own way, is a genius.

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