News & Opinion

Montana’s stymie of parents defies logic

In Montana, watching high school golf is an exercise in stealth. There are driveways and subdivisions involved, and the experience is not all that enjoyable.

Leslie Spalding knows that fact, even 30 years removed from her back-to-back state championships. When Spalding, a former LPGA player who coaches the San Diego State women, won the second of those titles on a rainy day in 1987, she and her parents caught only fleeting glimpses of one another. The Montana High School Association doesn’t allow parents on the course during matches or tournaments, so Spalding’s parents drove around the perimeter of the golf course, looking for gaps between houses that would allow them to see a shot here, a shot there. For as long as Spalding, one of Montana’s great golf products, can remember, the MHSA has governed golf this way.

“I just don’t know why they are so stubborn on changing it,” Spalding said. 

In a joint memo, MHSA executive director Mark Beckman and assistant director Brian Michelotti said member schools have shown support for the spectator policy. They cited a recent survey of course professionals and administrators from member schools. According to the memo, 31 of the 34 course professionals who responded were in favor of allowing spectators full course access, but school administrators felt differently: more than 75 percent did not want to grant spectators full access. 

The MHSA says it is addressing the issue through communication with individual courses about expanding spectator viewing areas without allowing total course access. For now, at least, the rule will stand. A member school could submit a proposal asking for reconsideration of the issue, but no such proposal was submitted at the MHSA’s January meeting.

If there’s one thing about parents, particularly parents of high school athletes, it’s that they won’t be stopped. The MHSA rule book states that “no spectators/fans are allowed on the course except for certain locations as designated by the tournament manager and club professional.” The designated areas are usually at the first tee and final green, which drives parents –much like Spalding’s – to the streets.

It drives other parents, such as Chris Kelley, to change.org. Kelley, who says he wants to see the rule overturned before his 9-year-old son reaches high school, is the man behind the change.org petition calling for the parent ban to be overturned and the reason why this story has sparked a national debate. By word of mouth, Kelley reached the first few hundred signees (mostly Montanans), but now there are more than 3,000 (http://bit.ly/2Bmd75m).

Kelley acknowledges that the petition has no teeth when it comes to changing policy, but he hopes it can be used as a metric to demonstrate the disconnect between the MHSA and the community which it serves.

As the conversation around Montana’s ban grows, the waiting game continues. If Montana fails to do away with its strict spectator rule, it won’t be for lack of momentum from the golf community (thank Kelley for that). As Spalding notes, it’s now or never.

“There’s never been this much support, media coverage or anything,” Spalding said. “If they can’t change it now, I just don’t know when they ever will.”

The question these headlines bring is obvious: How did we get here?

The concern in golf spectating is not so much behavior-oriented as it is advice-oriented, but golf is a game of honor. The vast majority of parents who attend a school golf match to spectate are golfers themselves and understand the game. Plus, some parents couldn’t give helpful advice to their child if they wanted to; they’re just there to be supportive. The MHSA is creating an issue for everyone when most parents know how to act. 

Spectator rules in most other states are not as strict as Montana’s. (New Jersey also confines spectators to designated areas.) However, the question of how to address parents on a golf course gets a lot more thought than in the average high school sport. The problems erupt for the same reason that other rules-related problems plague golf, and that’s the lack of a uniform playing field.  

Frankly, state high school athletic associations are wasting a lot of time by worrying so much about keeping parents away from their kids during competition. As a first-year girls high school golf coach in Florida (where parents must remain 50 feet from their children during competition), I sat through coaches’ meetings in which parent contact was discussed at length, but local rules never were addressed. We’re making ourselves unnecessarily crazy over this issue when we need parental involvement arguably more than in any other sport. Golf is not a skill that can be taught in just an hour or two after school for a few months of the year.

The fallout over the Montana spectator ban runs much deeper than parents, which is perhaps why this issue has gained so much momentum. Montana’s no-spectator rule extends to local media and college coaches, too. That doesn’t encourage TV crews to promote the event or its winners, and it doesn’t allow for parents like Kelley to introduce their children to high school golf before it’s their time to play it. 

Closing off matches and championships also bars college coaches from recruiting, which might not be a concern for the state champion but does affect players who may be recruited onto Division III or NAIA rosters. The repercussions of that restriction might be felt by the industry as a whole. Lose the lower-level college player, and you’re losing the individual who one day will be a green fee-paying adult.

“We live in Montana, and kids here are already at a disadvantage because of the weather,” Kelley said. “For the MHSA to put up more barriers for these kids, it’s wrong.”

Yes, there always will be problem parents, but the answer is not to lock down the playing field. The sport would be much better served in Montana if the MHSA designated an official – perhaps a school administrator – to monitor parental contact. Take a look around your local basketball court or football field, and you’re almost certain to see a principal on-hand for crowd control. Spalding even suggests soliciting help from PGA of America members if parental issues arise. 

Just as the USGA acknowledged that it was time to change archaic and overly penal aspects of the Rules of Golf, Montana needs to take the hint and acknowledge that it’s time to overturn its excessive parent ban.

Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules