Ryder Cup Fans: In the Name of Arnold Palmer and Spirit of the Game, Behave!

October 2, 2016

CHASKA, Minn. – The PGA of America sent out an extraordinary message on Sunday morning to the tens of thousands of Ryder Cup spectators coming in to watch the finale, which may be summarized as follows: “Behave!”

The day before, Sergio Garcia estimated that 85% of the fans at Hazeltine National were fine, but the obnoxious 15% were making everybody look bad. Garcia lives in Florida (when he’s not in Spain), plays the PGA Tour (when he’s not playing the world), has an American girlfriend (but has dated from other continents as well). He’s about as cosmopolitan as anybody in the game these days. I take him at his word, though the 15% sounds like an absurd overstatement.

It must have been pretty bad on Saturday, for Garcia and Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke and others to say what they said, and for the PGA to issue the statement it did. The rude conduct must have been spotty too. I was on the course for about five hours on Saturday afternoon, and I did not hear a single bit of offensive fan behavior, save the smattering of applause upon various European failures.

But the fact is, even that kind of response shows a total disregard for the true values of the game. This has been said a million times, so here we go again. The first section of the rulebook is about the spirit in which the game is to be played. It reads:

Golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the game of golf.

You can and should replace the words players with fans.

If you don’t understand the basic principle outlined in that statement, you don’t understand golf, whether you are ranked in the top 50 in the world or are more likely to shoot 93.

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You might be inclined to say that the insult-a-minute presidential campaign of a certain low-handicap golfer has contributed to an anything-goes culture coming out of (I’m going say) a tiny percentage of the fans at Hazeltine National. Donald Trump’s whole demeanor—wrong! look at that face! not the right look!—has certainly not helped make our society more civil. If you want to take it that way, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable, go ahead. Now we’re talking about a broad, cultural problem, rooted, really, in self-absorption.

You can go too far with any of this, golf-as-life and life-as-golf. Trump on the course, in my experience, has been a lot of fun. He has the needle out, but he’s also complimentary of your good shots and he’s paying attention. He plays by his own rules, as millions of golfers do, but he’s a gent on the course. You can’t pin obnoxious fan behavior on Trump.

And things have been heading in this direction for a long time. In 1999, at the Ryder Cup at the Country Club, the U.S. team was woefully inappropriate with its over-the-top celebration to the bomb Justin Leonard made late on Sunday when his playing partner, Jose Maria Olazabal, a golfing gentleman if ever there was one, still had a putt for a half. That crowd—that is, some tiny percentage of that crowd—was wildly inappropriate, by traditional golf standards, and the team was too.

By the way, when Ryder Cups are played overseas, in my experience, spectators are far better behaved, despite the drinking (tons of it) and gambling (ditto) and partisanship (over the top.)

It’s become fashionable to say that there really is no difference between the American players and the European players, since so many of the Europeans live in the United States and play the PGA Tour. On that basis, you might wonder how this competition has stayed so spirited through the years, if we are they and they are us. Actually, the divide is significant. The divide is really about how you were raised in the game. American golf comes out of the father-knows-best suburban safeland tradition. It’s easy to mock but shouldn’t be. It is really, part-and-parcel, at the core of the American dream. The European way is, at its core, working class. Darren Clarke’s life and times, from, say, birth to age 20 is a world away from how Davis Love III grew up. That’s the only remaining cultural divide between the two teams, and it is diminishing by the minute.

This Ryder Cup is being played in the wake of Arnold Palmer’s death, and his spirit, it was hoped, would infect the play. And, it should be added, reaction to the play.

Arnold was one of the most demonstrative players ever, but I think he’d be dismissive of some of the chest-pounding we’ve seen at Hazeltine from players on both sides. None of that is the spirit of the game.

As for the fan response to it, his private lunch-at-Latrobe response to it would be easy to predict:

That’s not the game I know.

Really. If the army had ever gotten out of hand, Arnold would have been embarrassed.

The PGA of America has it right. I would only add this:

In the name of Arnold Palmer and in his memory, behave!