When major winner Shaun Micheel first heard about the rule, he figured it was a hoax. Spectators banned from watching high school tournaments? No way.
But in Montana the fan ban is reality for every high school golfer and keeps parents, friends, and college coaches from seeing players in action.
The story first made headlines after Nick Petraccione of KBZK News Bozeman launched an investigation into the rule, which states: "No spectators/fans are allowed on the course except for certain locations as designated by the tournament manager and club professional." According to KBZK, those designated areas could be by the 1st tee or 18th green, but many tournaments don't offer spectator zones at all.
Of the 49 states that offer high school golf (Alaska does not), New Jersey is the only other state that puts restrictions on attendance.
An "astounded" Micheel took to Twitter. Not only was the rule needlessly punishing parents, he said, but it was also making it difficult for college coaches to recruit.
"Scores are only part of the bigger picture," he wrote on Twitter. "That being the intangibles like attitude, etiquette and temperament. How does the player handle adversity? All of the extra things that are part of competing. Coaches aren't able to evaluate those things by looking at just the final score."
It wasn't just Micheel, the 2003 PGA champion, who spoke out. Chris Kelley, whose 11-year-old son hopes to play on his high school team, launched a petition, and word spread across the golf world. The petition's nearly 2,500 signatures shows a string of responses from college and high school coaches, parents, even tour pros, with a nearly uniform response: The intent of the rule far outweighs its benefit.
The purpose of the ban? Officials at the Montana State High School Association (MSHA) have said that the rule, which is more than 30 years old, is in place to prevent illegal coaching, preserve spectator safety and protect against unruly fan behavior. Because a golf course is a less regulated environment than say, a football stadium or basketball gym, spectators cannot be permitted.
Mark Beckman, the executive director of the MHSA, said Friday that past proposals to change the rule have failed in part due to a lack of support from golf pros and member school administrators and that member schools have "consistently supported" the rule as currently written. "I have directed that another survey be conducted of course professionals and member schools," he said. "Once those results are in I will share those with our Executive Board for their review."
Stefan Schauffele, father of reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele, was signee No. 405. He wrote a lengthy entry calling the rule "an obvious obstacle to the development of potential talent."
Leslie Spalding, a Montanan who played on the LPGA tour, is the head women's coach at San Diego State, where Schauffele attended college. She praised Schauffele's relationship with his parents and wrote about her dismay at the rule, particularly in her role "as a college coach who would love to be able to provide opportunities for Montana kids."
Joni Stephens is the former head golf coach at the University of Montana and said the rule "severely limited" her ability to recruit in-state. "We had some good Montana junior golfers, but college coaches must be able to see them compete for an entire round," she wrote. Other in-state college coaches also became vocal opponents of the rule, including Brittany Basye of Montana State and Aaron Pohle of Rocky Mountain College.
Judi Pavon, a former LPGA player from Helena, is now the head women's coach at the University of Tennessee. She signed the petition. So did Brenda Howe, the women's coach at Eastern Washington, and Sara Federico, head coach at Weber State, who were each interested in recruiting in the Big Sky State this year but couldn't watch their prospective players.
Plenty of more coaches signed, too — from Ohio State, Iowa, Troy, Texas State, Memphis, University of Santa Clara, along with dozens of high schools.
Also among the signees: more than a dozen current and former LPGA players, including at least four who won on tour: Cathy Johnston Forber, Donna Andrews, Barbara Thomas Whitehead and Tina Barrett.
Missy Jones, a rules official who works for the USGA, LPGA, and NCAA, signed. So did Jeff Opheim, the Callaway tour rep who fit Arnold Palmer for clubs.
More striking, though, has been the testimony from parents and players.
"My son asks for me to come to his tournaments," said Kathy Wilcox of Toston, Mont. "So I go and sit in the clubhouse or my car in the parking lot. I wish I could support him and the other kids in a better way."
Nichole Brown of Laurel, Mont., wrote: "I played high school golf and would have loved for my parents to have been able to watch me."
Kory Johnston of Missoula has a son who will be a senior next year. "I hope the rule is changed in time for me to watch him!" Johnston said.
Despite the organic growth of the petition, the MHSA elected to keep the issue off the agenda for the group's annual meeting on Jan. 15. Beckman said that decision was made because none of the MHSA's member schools submitted a proposal.