AUGUSTA, Ga. >> If Bobby Jones were alive today and up to revising his code of conduct for the fans of his Masters, you could only imagine the challenge facing the courtly gentleman:
“The yelling of ‘Dilly Dilly!’ or ‘Baba Booey!’ following a tee shot is an offense against humanity.”
“Nowhere in the Rules of Golf is there a mandate requiring a player to fist-bump a drunken patron in a ‘Federal Bikini Inspector’ T-shirt on his way to the next hole.”
“Those who intentionally speak out during a player’s backswing might as well just belch the alphabet in church. It’s the same thing.”
These offenses are a few of the outside-the-ropes obstacles facing today’s players at certain professional venues other than the Masters. The price to be paid for attempting to make golf less stuffy, to take the game to the people, is the inevitable disturbance when some of those people are yahoos.
As a result, fan conduct has become a talking point lately on the PGA Tour.
Patron conduct at Augusta National is never an issue. Not yet, anyway.
“This golf tournament, this golf club, they do it right,” said Rory McIlroy, who’s had his say more than once on the escalating rowdyism at tournaments. “You have to respect the traditions of the game. And, look, I keep saying I’m all for people having a good time. That is what will bring more people into our game and into our sport. But sometimes you just have to remember that it’s not quite a football match or whatever.”
What separates Augusta National from, say, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is the fact that there is no orgiastic arena of drink and degradation around the par-3 16th at Augusta. The example set by that one hole of that one tournament of tens of thousands of fans booing/cheering/hooting at players has redefined the limits of what is right and proper golf behavior.
Also, more important, what sets Augusta National apart is the cudgel of exclusivity it holds over every badge holder. Entry into the Masters is so precious, each badge so rare, that no one would dare risk it by acting the fool. The threat of losing access to the azaleas is a powerful tool of behavioral control.
Peer pressure works, too.
“We all hold Augusta National in such high esteem that I would like to think they will respect Augusta and what it is, and we won’t have them screaming, ‘Mashed Potatoes’ and things like that,” said three-time Masters champion, and CBS analyst, Nick Faldo.
“I believe the patrons will kind of marshal each other. If someone does step out of line I think a fellow patron would more than likely say, ‘Augusta National is not the place for that.’”
This place is an island far removed from the other mean streets of America’s country clubs. (Granted, what is considered a rowdy day at the golf course is but the first inning at the ballpark).
When Justin Thomas gets a fan ejected for rooting against him, it’s certainly not the Masters. That was the Honda Classic in South Florida, and Thomas took a beating on social media for being thin-skinned.
When McIlroy gets paired with Tiger Woods for a couple of rounds and says after dealing with the boisterous following, “I need a couple Advil. I’ve got a headache after all that,” it’s not at Augusta. That was at Riviera in L.A.
Woods also is at the Masters, you may have heard, but the headaches are more pollen-induced here.
When Rickie Fowler, the symbol of the younger generation and a solid fan fave, complains about heckling, it’s not at the green oasis off Washington Road. It’s in the desert, at the aforementioned Waste Management stop.
As golf struggles with striking the balance between propriety and populism, there’s bound to be a bit of a class struggle.
Only a small number of those in the gallery are apt to act up — “It’s inevitable that .0001 percent is going to act like a jackass,” Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules, told the L.A. Times.
But amid a landscape of whispers, just one harsh voice stands out like a siren.
The PGA Tour has sounded the all-is-well. They will not be overturning golf carts in celebration anytime soon at a tournament near you. Jay Monahan, PGA commissioner, assures us of that. He’s on it.
“I think you have to realize with phones, with technology, with crowds that are growing to the size that we have at some of these events, it’s never going to be perfect,” he said. “That balance is always something we are striving for and are very aware of and there is no recipe. It’s something that you have to let evolve, and I think we are in a good place and will continue to be in a good place.”
Weighing the need to bring new, younger eyeballs to the sport against a stodgy code of etiquette is “a fine balance,” said Jim Nantz, the CBS voice of golf.
“Silence over the swing has always been there, and that’s probably not understood by people who don’t play golf. They think that’s just some archaic, stuffy approach to viewing sport,” Nantz added. “They’re seeing in other arenas — screaming and shouting over a free throw, under the basket they’re trying to influence history. Why isn’t that something we can bring into the game of golf? For the novice, the non-golf fan, it’s probably lost on them, and they want to categorize golf as a sport that doesn’t get it.”
There is no debate at Augusta National. Cellphones are part of the scenery at other tournaments, but not the Masters. Spectators at the Valspar in Florida were in stampede mode to keep up with Tiger Woods. Here, they are gently rebuked by security if they break into so much as a speed-walk to get from hole to hole. And the yelling of nonsense is not abided. It is the soundtrack of other events.
Specifics are hard to come by here, but a Cincinnati Enquirer column this week shed a little light on the dedication to order around here. An unnamed security man said that anyone who acts up in the slightest has a hole punched in his or hers Masters badge. Do it again, while wearing the mark of shame, and you’re gone.
And that very, very seldom happens.
“(Proper behavior) is something really that’s part of our culture,” said Augusta National’s new chairman, Fred Ridley. “We believe that it’s important not only here at the Masters, but in every tournament. I know there’s been some incidents recently, but we take that part of our policies very seriously. And we will always take action to make sure that all of our policies are enforced, including that one.”
In this one place Jones’ actual, original words still carry the force of law.
They are, as they appear in the first page of the Masters spectator guide:
“In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play. It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors.
“Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player. Such occurrences have been rare at the Masters but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.”
If that rings as stuffy or antiquated, the lords of the Masters are willing to run that risk.