Is heckling acceptable now in golf?

The Scoop

In this week's Alternate Shot Dan Murphy and Mark Townsend lock horns over the prickly subject of fans being a little too vocal out on the course

Yes, says Dan Murphy

As Twickenham fell silent last month with Owen Farrell preparing to kick a penalty, my casual-rugby-fan companion looked at me open-mouthed, pointing at the ‘respect the kicker’ graphics scrolling across the hoardings.

Here was something unthinkable at a football match, when so much as a throw-in is considered fair game to get stuck into the player taking it.

Presumably it was once the case at a Test match that the ground would fall silent as the bowler ran in.

In golf, we stand still and zip it as a player settles over the ball.

On a weekly basis on the PGA Tour, inane bellowing follows every tee shot struck by a leading player.

These, then, are some of the mores of contemporary sport. And they change – not always quickly, but they do change.

Last week, Justin Thomas broke an unwritten rule by taking matters into his own hands and demanding a fan was evicted for shouting that he wished for his ball to go into a lake or failing that a bunker. OK, it’s not quite up there with slitting-throat gestures or vile abuse, the likes of which are now just a fact of life at football matches, but it’s not pleasant and we have to remember that golfers are out there for, well, anything up to six hours at the moment and they spend much of that in proximity to fans.

However, Thomas might like to reflect, and probably already has, that the last high-profile golfer to make similar complaints was Colin Montgomerie, and then didn’t end well for him. By calling out, you are effectively admitting that a heckle is upsetting you and that knowledge is likely to prove irresistible to the next one.

It seems to me that players would be better to keep their thoughts to themselves while out on the course and not give the hecklers the satisfaction of knowing they have hit the mark.

I say much the same thing to my four-year-old on a daily basis when her older brother is pushing her buttons with forensic precision.

One final point. Much of the heckling, goes the received wisdom, is inspired by heavy drinking and committed by ‘fans’ (note the inverted commas) who aren’t even interested in golf. Well, there’s a lot of drinking that goes on at big sporting events. And it isn’t just in the cheap seats.

If you want to see a group of people boozing all day and paying no attention to the sport that is supposedly the point of being there in the first place, check out the corporate hospitality areas at Wembley, Lord’s, Twickenham, the Ryder Cup, the Open, Wimbledon, Silverstone and any other major sporting venue you can think of. So let’s not get snobby about this.

Colin Montgomerie

No, says Mark Townsend

This was all probably a build-up of things. At Riviera Thomas spent the first two days playing alongside Tiger Woods as things ‘got a little out of hand’ towards the end of the day. The other member of the threeball Rory McIlroy thought that the circus probably cost Tiger half a shot per round.

These things come with being the best in the business, you’re not on the wrong end of some rum comments in the 7.32 tee time, and Thomas, very nearly, is now the best in the business.

So is Thomas now a bit of a prima donna? No. Should he, when walking up to the 16th tee tied for the lead, just switch off when a fan screams “I hope you hit it in the water!” Probably yes.

Then, after hitting a driver down the fairway, and the same fan shouts for the ball to get into the bunker. Should he turn the other cheek again? Probably yes.

But what if the same clown was going to do/say something before, during or after every shot until the climax of the tournament which Thomas was trying to win? Should one player have to put up with this? Of course not.

The on-course microphones heard Thomas say, think of a golfing Dirty Harry, “Who said that? Was it you? Enjoy your day, you’re done.”

And while Thomas was putting his gun back in the holster, the smoke still in the air, our friend was on his way off the property.

On the Monday Thomas, after getting a bit of stick, apologised, maybe egged on by his management group, but, for me, there was no need.

Shout ‘mashed potato’ or ‘Baba Booey’ or whatever you want but this isn’t the Ryder Cup, we haven’t got a home and away team, we all just want to give the best players the best chance. Even the Ryder Cup can be done in the right manner, if Bubba and co want some 1st tee pumping up then put your hands together. Otherwise shut up, we’re not here or watching at home to get your take on things, we’re here to watch our brave hombres put club to ball better than all of is could ever imagine.

Tiger puts up with more of this than everyone put together which is why he has security with him. Too many crass comments and you’ll probably get an oversized hand on your shoulder before too long.

Golf gets accused of being stuffy and fussy and dated and sober all too often, this aspect of the game is a big part of its huge charm.

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