News & Opinion

Risk rises as fans squeeze close to action

Forgive the expression, but Major League Baseball is taking some lumps over fan safety

Forgive the expression, but Major League Baseball is taking some lumps over fan safety. Another spectator, a 14-year-old girl, was hurt by a foul ball on Sunday in Los Angeles. Last August, a woman died after being struck in the head by a ball at Dodger Stadium.

That’s not to single out Dodger Stadium. Serious incidents have taken place at other ballparks. After several fans were injured in 2017, all 30 stadia expanded protective netting to at least the far ends of the dugouts. But the line drive that struck the girl on Sunday flew beyond the extension, prompting demands to expand netting further.

The NHL installed netting at each end of its rinks years ago. The action was taken after the 2002 death of a 13-year-old girl, who was hit by a wayward puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. NASCAR also has dealt with fan safety issues. As part of a $400 million renovation three years ago, Daytona International Speedway eliminated the 10 rows of seats positioned closest to the fencing and positioned the remaining seats back and higher, to offer better protection.

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Nobody in golf draws a crowd quite like Tiger Woods, who, despite his extraordinary ability, has been known to plunk an unwary patron.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Nobody in golf draws a crowd quite like Tiger Woods, who, despite his extraordinary ability, has been known to plunk an unwary patron.

What about golf? The topic is remindful of the old Tiger Woods commercials, entitled “Golf’s Not Hard.” In one, Woods hits a shot through a narrow tunnel of encroaching spectators, explaining that the circumstances remind him to “keep my clubface square.” He then gives way to “Joe, a 27-handicapper from Logansport.” Joe hits the same shot and hooks it through the cardboard cutout heads of the same crowd.

The situation was exaggerated but not far-fetched. We’ve all seen the cocoon that encircles a player and his next shot when he strays from the fairway. Happens all the time.

Former President George H.W. Bush died in November, God bless him. And generally speaking, golf spectatorship has been a little bit safer since. But you have to wonder, if other sports present spectating dangers, what about golf?

Professionals are launching a hard 1.68-inch sphere into the air at speeds up to 200 mph, aiming to split trusting galleries that might stand 50 yards apart. Oh, and they’re doing so with a clubface the size of a salad spoon. Still, you have to appreciate that golf is different.

Swinging at a moving target, the best baseball batters in the world can’t pinpoint where it’s going, at least not frequently. An average of 65 balls are used for each major-league game, lots of them landing in the seats.

It has been 78 years since a major-leaguer had a batting success rate as high as .400. The average batsman was at .248 last season, meaning he failed to hit safely more than 75 percent of the time. Strikeouts exceeded hits by 188, meaning he more often failed to make contact altogether.

In hockey, the hard rubber disc is 3 inches in diameter and zipping around an ice surface at speeds exceeding 100 mph. The puck is being propelled and deflected with sticks. Players frequently incur injuries as a result of being hit by the puck. And they wear protective equipment.

As sure as the blades are sharp and the equipment bags stink, pucks are going to soar into the stands. In hockey parlance, there’s “no question about it.”

Golf is different. Players swing at a stationary target. In fact, if it does move, they’re going to need a ruling. This year, the average PGA Tour player is hitting fairways 62 percent of the time, hitting greens at 65 percent. Professionals make solid contact every time, and fans count on it. They fearlessly rush for a perilous place to watch one’s next stroke – one, mind you, whose last stroke sailed wildly to that very place.

That’s not to say fans never get hit; they most certainly do. Sometimes, it’s comical, such as when an Irish Open shot by Thomas Pieters landed in a spectator’s pocket. Try playing that where it lies.

But there are more serious consequences, as well. An errant shot by Brooks Koepka at last year’s Ryder Cup struck a woman in the head and sent her to the hospital. She claimed vision loss. In 2010, the aforementioned Woods struck a fan in the neck with his opening tee shot at the Memorial. Turns out, golf is hard.

And in 2017, Pat Perez beaned not one but two spectators in a single round at the 2017 Genesis Open. That’s two … two … two fans in one.

But identifying practical protection is difficult. Yes, Topgolf has taken netting to a whole new level, but it’s hard to envision such a solution for tens of thousands spread over 18 individual holes. Not even Spider-Man has that kind of imagination.

Hard hats and goggles might offer merchandising possibilities, but PGA Tour events would become massive construction sites – not a good look. The green jackets of Augusta probably wouldn’t take kindly to yellow helmets.

As happened in hockey and baseball, tragedy is the ultimate motivator. Usually, a terrible price is paid before serious attention. Let’s hope that’s not the case in golf. Perhaps the game should look at less complicated measures: prohibit fans from setting up shop in landing zones; penalize players for not shouting “Fore!”; provide more marshals and more visible warnings; and keep people off their cellphones – good luck with that one!

But ultimately, isn’t attending a sports event, and putting yourself in harm’s way, kind of like building in a floodplain? Fan safety has to start with fan accountability, it seems. A healthy portion of common sense should be involved.

When you attend a sports event where rock-hard objects are flying around at formidable speeds, you might consider the element of danger that exists. You should know your surroundings and, at the very least, be paying attention.

A bit of “buyer beware” should be involved here … if not nearly enough netting.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD