Few heckles aside, these Presidents Cup fans have been surprisingly supportive of both sides

December 14, 2019

MELBOURNE, Australia — Sure, there has been heckling at this Presidents Cup (especially in the direction of Patrick Reed), just as there always is in these super-charged team events: a boo here, applause for a missed putt there. Some oiled-up spectators have “gone over the top,” Tiger Woods said after the Saturday matches.

But as an Australian fan strolling the grounds at Royal Melbourne this week, I’ve been struck by the largely warm reception for the U.S. team, the pesky flies notwithstanding. (Jack Nicklaus once quipped that the flies deserve credit for the Australian accent; his logic was that Aussies had to speak with all but sealed lips to avoid swallowing the pests, which led to mumbling.) In fact, at times the scene has felt less like a patriotic clash and more like a PGA Tour event.

Why so welcoming an environment? Two theories come to mind.

The first is the spectacle that is this biennial competition: 24 of the world’s greatest golfers in one place at one time. This is a weekly offering for American golf fans. But to fans outside of the U.S., having a front-row seat to such a deep pool of world-class players is a rare luxury. The team dynamic adds another level of intrigue and excitement. As the pros play their hearts out for their teammates and flags, every last drive, chip and putt feels significant. The Aussie fans seem in awe of — and respectful of — all of it.

The second theory relates to the special meaning golf holds in the Australian sporting and cultural landscape. As an Oz native (albeit living in the U.S.), I feel best qualified to discuss this second thesis.

There is a saying that every country town in Australia has a pub, a post office and a golf course (which might double as cricket pitch or rugby field). Golf is accessible, which in part explains why the nation has produced such standouts as Peter Thomson, Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Karrie Webb, Jan Stephenson and more recently Geoff Ogilvy, Jason Day and, of course, Masters winner Adam Scott. Australia also is blessed to have some of the world’s best golf courses, from Kingston Heath to Cape Wickham to the Alister MacKenzie masterwork that has played a starring role in this Presidents Cup.

My country’s irresistible golf offerings also have attracted so many golf legends, many of whom have enjoyed success Down Under. Winners of the Australian Open include Jack Nicklaus (seven times!), Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and more recently Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Australia’s rich golfing history might explain how members of a low-profile club like Coober Pedy Opal Fields Golf Club (in a remote opal mining town in South Australia) have reciprocal playing privileges at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Royal Melbourne is one of many of Australia's glittering golf offerings.
Gary Lisbon

It is against this backdrop that Australian fans — some 30,000 per day — have made the pilgrimage to Royal Melbourne, not only to back the Internationals but also to indulge in the Tiger, DJ and JT Show. Ian Baker-Finch posited on Australian radio last week that the local fans were likely most excited to see the star-studded American team, given many of them might know only three or four of the International players (there are three Aussies on the squad) but all of the Americans. Even Adam Scott issued a plea to fans onsite to support the Internationals and not Tiger.

Scott was onto something. While “Go, Scotty!” and “Come on, Leish!” have been common war cries at Royal Melbourne, many fans have not heeded Scott’s wish. A small sample of the commentary overheard in the galleries includes: “Bryson, you have massive guns!”, “Love you, JT!” and, of course, “Kuuuuuch!” Even Patrick Reed heard “We are with you, Patrick!” — albeit only once or twice.

The most popular cheer? You guessed it. “Go, Tiger!”

Don’t count on the crowds being quite so amiable during Sunday’s singles matches, with the 12 International players needing just 5.5 points to pull off an epic upset.

Here’s hoping their 13th man steps up big to support them.