Opinion: Phoenix Open crowd scenes in 2024 highlight golf’s identity crisis
Like a teenager trying to decide between growing a mullet or getting a crew cut, professional golf is wrestling with an identity crisis.
Does the game – which is thought to be more than 600 years old – continue to cater almost entirely to traditionalists? Or does it lean into the inevitable modernisation that has enveloped other elite sports over the past couple of decades?
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The scenes at the Phoenix Open over the weekend will shock many, but shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Drunken louts taking their shirts off, throwing themselves down mud slides, making beer cup snakes, jumping the fence and into green-side bunkers, and yelling obscenities at players as they’re mid-swing.
It’s unsavoury, it’s gross, it’s unnecessary, and it’s not golf. Except, increasingly, it kind of is.
The Phoenix Open is the extreme example but other tournaments are beginning to follow suit when it comes to revamping the fan experience.
The famous par-3 16th stadium hole was even replicated at last year’s Australian PGA Championship in Brisbane.
Players walked from the relatively tranquil 16th green at Royal Queensland and through a tunnel where they were welcomed by hundreds of fans – most of whom were very well hydrated – onto the 17th tee, often with personalised walk-on songs blaring from multiple speakers lining the fairway.
Many – including Aussie rising star and eventual Aussie PGA Championship winner Min Woo Lee – lapped it up. They enjoy the break from the relentless uniformity and humdrum life of the professional tour.
Similar scenes highlighted the first LIV Golf event in Australia, where fans in Adelaide hurled their beers onto the tee box when Chase Koepka hit a hole-in-one.
The emergence of LIV is forcing established organizations like the PGA Tour to get with the times – however that may be interpreted by those running the show.
Golf, the game, isn’t really changing and there’s no need to. Administrators are planning to roll back the size of the balls simply to stop pros hitting it so damn far but other than that, it ain’t broke so don’t fix it.
The change is coming outside the ropes. Fans are being encouraged to do things like hurl their beers and take their shirts off.
Organizers may intend for it only to happen on one hole around a course, but if you invite such behavior to an event in the first place, don’t be surprised when it gets out of hand.
Team USA’s Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson was filmed in a fiery confrontation with a group of spectators at the Phoenix Open, and it wasn’t inside the 16th hole colosseum.
“Don’t ‘sir’ me, somebody said it – I’m just sick of it,” Johnson was filmed yelling after supposedly being heckled during his round.
“This tournament has been inappropriate or crossed the line ever since I’ve been on tour, and this is my 21st year,” he later said in an interview.
Another Phoenix Open player, Billy Horschel, was also filmed giving it to a rowdy spectator for breaking the unwritten rule – don’t speak during a player’s swing.
“Buddy, when he’s over a shot shut the hell up man,” Horschel shouted after playing partner Nicolo Galletti was heckled during his swing.
“He’s trying to hit a damn golf shot here – it’s our f—ing job.”
Byeong Hun An was another player to speak out against the crowd behavior at TPC Scottsdale.
“Shitshows. Totally out of control on every hole,” he tweeted about the event.
The players are obviously struggling to accept that when you invite people to behave like idiots, people will behave like idiots.
Unfortunately for the Phoenix Open, some spectators don’t understand that idiocy is supposed to stay confined to one hole.
Golf certainly doesn’t have a crowd problem compared to most other big global sports, but there is a key difference.
Football, tennis, cricket et al have a permanent structure and multiple security personnel separating the athletes from the public.
Golf is unique in that wherever your ball decides to fly, that’s where you must stand for your next shot.
Play it where it lies, sir!
This detail means the fan experience is already something special. Having been to the Australian Open in Sydney late last year I can confirm watching Aaron Baddeley play a perfect draw off the pine up the 17th fairway from literally two meters away was an awesome sight.
But the group of spectators surrounding Baddeley knew the rules – be quiet and keep still until after he hits the ball.
It’s not an easy problem for administrators to deal with. Putting several security guards on each hole at major events is an option, but that could ruin the experience for purists only there to enjoy some golf.
Do organizers try to confine the drunken hooligans to one hole? If so, how? And can players opt out of running that gauntlet if they don’t feel comfortable?
Golf is far from the first sport to grapple with such an identity crisis.
But the game better figure out what it is, and who its fans are.
If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to anybody.