When did it become acceptable to spit on the course?

June 10, 2008

As the tour’s second major approaches, I keep going back to my dominant memory of the first. No, not Trevor Immelman’s ball striking or Brandt Snedeker’s tears. I remember the saliva. More specifically, the flying saliva.

On the back page of the pairing sheets at the Masters is a two-paragraph message from Bobby Jones under the heading conduct, customs and etiquette. The first sentence reads, “In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play.” I’m guessing that Bobby Jones would not care if you took your hat off before shaking the hand of your playing partner’s caddie at the end of a round. (When did that become part of the code of good golf manners, anyway?) I do think, though, that he’d frown upon spitting on his course.

Years ago, you seldom if ever saw a golfer spit. In my brief stint as a Tour caddie, dating back to the mid-’80s, I rarely saw pros do it. Players whom I spoke to going back to the ’50s say they never saw it either. Smoking was common, but spitting was something you didn’t see. Now every time you look up, there’s another spitter, and we’re not even talking about Sergio Garcia expectorating into the cup of the 13th hole on Sunday at Doral last year.

At the Houston Open in April, Johnson Wagner spat his way through the NBC telecast as he earned his first trip to the Masters. Would you spit in your mother’s garden? Then why would you spit on somebody else’s course? It’s gross. Germy, too.

At the Masters you could see Scott Verplank spitting on the practice putting green, Tiger Woods spitting on the 18th tee and Boo Weekley spitting everywhere. On the other side of the gallery ropes Boo’s father, Tom, was doing the same. There was lots of spitting among the patrons, sometimes in very tight quarters. I suggest long pants.

It’s not happening only at Augusta National, although you notice it more in that parklike setting, just as I imagine you will at this week’s U.S. Open, showcase of the USGA, which is charged with safeguarding the game’s honorable traditions. That’s because it occurs wherever the PGA Tour congregates. (You never see LPGA players spitting.)

I blame Tiger for the trend. He has legitimized spitting just as he has legitimized workouts before you play. He fights allergies and is often congested, but his spitting seems connected to both the pollen count and his bogey count. Doesn’t matter. If he really needs to spit, he should get a little water cup on the tee. Or do as Greg Norman used to do and carry a handkerchief. They still make them.

Maybe the spitting helps the players feel more macho and more like real athletes. In baseball, tobacco spit used to be as commonplace as pine tar. These days there’s less dipping and chewing in the national pastime than there used to be, and less spitting too. I don’t know if dip is on the rise among Tour players, but spitting is.

Tiger — noted health nut — does not dip, but he does spit. Do you want to tee up your ball in Tiger’s spit?

Actually, the answer is probably yes, but that’s not the point.

SI’s Farrell Evans responds to this column in the Press Tent. Read his opposing thoughts on spitting here.