News & Opinion

Beers, jeers on Tour: Time to tighten tap?

ORLANDO, Fla. – For many public schools, the annual bacchanal known as spring break began last week in Florida.

Over the years, the event has generated a million images of hold-my-beer stunts, obnoxiousness and alcohol-fueled behavior. Perhaps it was inevitable that the sudsy, sun-splashed mindset would migrate to another March calendar staple here, the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy picked St. Patrick’s Day at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to complain about what he perceives to be the Tour’s increasingly booze-filled galleries, noting that it’s time to consider limiting the sale of alcoholic beverages and reining in the resulting vitriol.

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© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
Rory McIlroy laments the lack of decorum among some fans on the PGA Tour, saying, ‘There’s just so much more of an edge to it now.’

© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
Rory McIlroy laments the lack of decorum among some fans on the PGA Tour, saying, ‘There’s just so much more of an edge to it now.’

During the third round, a fan mercilessly heckled McIlroy, repeatedly yelling his newlywed wife’s name and making it personal. McIlroy’s reaction made headlines in the local paper and appeared on several major sports websites.

“I definitely vented a little,” McIlroy said Sunday on the putting green before the final round, five hours before he won the tournament title with a blistering 64. “I’m not sure when this all started, but the fans, there’s just so much more of an edge to it now, an edge that I don’t remember being this bad.

“It’s like there’s no longer a line they won’t cross.”

Sure, the gallery rope is still there. But hurling taunts, invectives and unflattering comments at stars in a sport where they often are within arm’s reach – and well within auditory range – makes players easy targets in an increasingly graceless age. McIlroy laughed and summoned a line from a tightly wound, mythic character in the golf flick, “Happy Gilmore.”

“I mean, at the risk of sounding like Shooter McGavin, this is golf,” McIlroy said.

Whether fans are aware of the decades-old decorum associated with the game, or just don’t care, is open to question. Finding a contributing cause for some of the increasingly boorish behavior isn’t, McIlroy contends. He noted that more fans appear along the gallery ropes with wine or mixed drinks in hand, and he thinks that development represents a dangerous social cocktail.

"It used to be, like, you bring beers onto the course, or buy beers, but not liquor,” he said Saturday night. “Now it seems like everyone's walking around with a cocktail or whatever.”

At Bay Hill, fans could buy mimosas or wine by the glass for $9 and entire bottles of wine for $35. Individual beers were $4.50-$8, depending on the brand. For some, cheers plus beers equals jeers.

“I don’t know if it’s the alcohol, or social media, or what’s exactly to blame,” McIlroy said before the final round. “I wish I knew. But we hear some ugly things out there sometimes, and it seems like it’s getting worse.”

It went unreported at the time, but McIlroy said he had a spectator thrown out at the Genesis Open near Los Angeles last month, a fan who was verbally harassing American playing competitor Justin Thomas. At the Honda Classic last month in south Florida, Thomas had a fan removed by security after the loudmouth openly rooted for Thomas’ ball to land in a hazard.

A uniformed cop removed another fan at the Honda for screaming “mashed potato” at the top of his lungs while standing just a few feet from Tiger Woods, during a tee shot. Other fans applauded the move as the fan was carted off.

It’s not just a Florida thing, of course. At the Presidents Cup in the shadow of New York City last fall, the wife of Australian player Marc Leishman tweeted several complaints about ugly fan comments hurled at the International team. Worst of all, perhaps, was the incident at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., when a fan screamed, “Hey, Rory, suck a ----,” as McIlroy walked to the next tee. Uncool, uncouth.

McIlroy shrugged when the latter incident was mentioned.

“Look, I am absolutely in favor of fans having a few beers and having a good time,” he said, “but there has to be a line.”

Mark Brazil, the chair of the PGA Tour’s Tournament Advisory Committee, a panel of tournament directors, did not mince words Monday.

“I completely agree with Rory on this,” said Brazil, director of the Wyndham Championship. “It’s something that we as tournaments and the TAC board need to have a meaningful conversation with the Tour about.”

Golf differs from other sports. First, there’s a decades-old compact among players and most fans that maintaining dignity and respect for the game is paramount. But when tournaments begin selling beer shortly after dawn, and certain fans are marinating in the sun for 12 hours, intoxication seems inevitable. The Tour said its policy calls for tournaments to curtail alcohol sales one hour before the scheduled completion of play. Whether that stipulation is enforced, with more than 40 events annually scattered over several countries, is unclear.

Outside of college football and pregame tailgating at off-campus venues, is there another sport at which U.S. fans can drink for an entire day of competition while watching their favorite player – if not their least favorite?

As McIlroy noted, hundreds of imbibing fans increasingly seem to migrate out of the corporate chalets, which are hospitality tents erected and sold for tens of thousands of dollars to corporations and sponsors, a package deal that often includes food, booze and a bundle of event tickets. The corporations hand out tickets to employees, clients and customers, and some recipients are unfamiliar with golf decorum. Mixed drinks with hard liquor often flow freely.

McIlroy said that as he played the third round at Bay Hill alongside another former world No. 1, Ernie Els, they talked about why the mood so often turns ugly.

"They need to limit the alcohol sales on the course, or they need to do something, because every week it seems like guys are complaining about it more and more," McIlroy said Saturday night.

While tournaments often use local police to patrol the grounds, most of the security is positioned inside the ropes, close to players. It’s unfair to expect course marshals, who often are well-meaning retiree volunteers, to stand up to loudmouth fans spewing invectives. It’s also potentially unsafe. Moreover, with volunteers, you mostly get what you pay for.

Short of circulating more uniformed police outside the ropes, it’s difficult to see how the issue can be controlled, short of monitoring alcohol sales, or establishing a cut-off time. Major League Baseball halts beer sales after the seventh inning.

Outside of a handful of fulltime Tour employees who mostly walk inside the ropes, tournaments are responsible for funding and providing their own security, as spelled out in their Tour contract. Security dollars have been steadily increasing, to a level that one tournament director called “a very significant number.” More uniformed bodies might be needed outside the ropes.

“My personal belief is, that would be a good investment,” Brazil said.

Brazil said that cutting the number of hours when alcohol is served or using wristbands to track sales to individuals could be options.

As for McIlroy and his peers, they’ll tune out the noise as best they can, as they once did with ringing cellphones. Still, on the 16th hole at Bay Hill on Sunday, as McIlroy was closing in on his first victory since 2016, another gallery clown began barking at him. The man clearly was upset that McIlroy had voiced an opinion about the alcohol issue, comments which were bannered across the top of the Orlando Sentinel’s Sunday sports section. At least the guy could read.

With the fan repeatedly calling McIlroy out by name, the intelligible bits included, “Come on, Rory. Let the boys drink,” and, “It’s only beer.” Other fans in the gallery looked embarrassed but said little, if anything. A uniformed Orange County deputy sheriff eventually told the man to pipe down, or else. He complied.

Still, talk about illustrating McIlroy’s point with emphatic irony. While haranguing McIlroy about the relationship between loud fans and alcohol, the man held a can of beer in his right hand.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling