Did one fan’s scream ruin Tommy Fleetwood’s hopes at Honda Classic?

March 2, 2020
tommy fleetwood honda classic 18 water ball

As he stood over his approach on No. 18 at PGA National, things were looking decidedly bright for Tommy Fleetwood. Even though he’d yielded his 54-hole lead, the 29-year-old had just poured in an impressive curler for birdie at 17 to get within one stroke of Sungjae Im, who was sitting in the clubhouse. Then he’d split the fairway at 18, leaving just 235 yards in on the par-5 finisher.

But as Fleetwood took a rip with a fairway wood, NBC’s microphones picked up a fan screaming, “Get in the hole!” in the middle of his backswing.

Fleetwood, who typically favors a draw, had sent a high cut into the sky, chasing the far-right pin. But he started the shot way right of his target and could only watch with a grimace as his ball dropped into the lake, dooming his chances at a first PGA Tour win.

After the ball found its watery grave, Fleetwood glanced back at caddie Ian Finnis, then shot a quick glance towards the crowd. Without being able to read his mind, it was easy to imagine he was looking for whoever had yelled — though he could have just as easily just been staring into space in disbelief. Fans on social media leapt into an instant uproar, calling for the head of the offender.

As for Fleetwood? He said he never heard a thing. “Spoke to Tommy and his caddie,” tweeted Golf Digest’s Brian Wacker after the round. “Neither heard it or had any idea. On-course TV mic probably picked it up from elsewhere on the hole.”

Credit to Fleetwood for not taking the easy way out (this writer would have gladly allowed someone else to take the blame for my poor shot) but his explanation doesn’t quite clear up everything. Watch the replay — if the screamer is anywhere near Fleetwood and the timing of the audio is correct, how could he not have heard it? The incident was reminiscent of Patrick Reed, who said he didn’t hear a fan scream “Cheater!” during a pivotal putt at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this year.

Four possible explanations:

1. Fleetwood didn’t want to make excuses. Sure, he heard something, but didn’t want to take the easy way out.

2. Fleetwood didn’t hear the fan. He was in the zone — and fans scream stuff all the time. Fleetwood didn’t even notice.

3. The audio was out of sync on the broadcast. What’s confusing about this possibility is that the audio of the club hitting the ball is perfectly matched up, but it’s possible to imagine multiple audio inputs or that the club noise was artificially added from the production truck.

4. The audio was captured from elsewhere on the hole. Maybe the viewers at home had a distorted sense of how loud the scream was, especially from Fleetwood’s perspective, because the microphones picking it up were planted in the crowd far from the action. This could serve as a potential explanation for Reed’s situation, too.

File this under mysteries of television production. For my money, No. 3 seems like the simplest explanation, and I’ll sleep better thinking that Tommy Lad’s chances weren’t tossed into the drink thanks to an overserved resident of Palm Beach County.

Fleetwood stood by the shot selection after his round.

“I think we picked the right shot, 100 percent,” he said. “I just didn’t pull it off.”

The water ball also made Mackenzie Hughes a lot of money. Hughes was in the clubhouse at 5-under, tied with Fleetwood, and was staring down a 3rd-place finish ($483,000) if Fleetwood was able to force a playoff — or a drop to T3 if Brendan Steele birdied 18, too. But Steele’s approach found the water, Fleetwood’s did, too and Hughes was left holding the $763,000 second-place check. Nice consolation prize.

As for the heckler? He loses points for lack of creativity. “Get in the hole!” faded from fashion in the late ’90s. Disappointing lack of innovation, just for starters. But we’ll likely never know just how pivotal his decision was.

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