Saturday, November 5, 2016


 By Ronald T. Fox

Disruptive Spectators
As a former college golfer who played in numerous team competitions, I can attest to the excitement and raw passion that accompanies such events. Perhaps no event more puts these features on display more than the biennial Ryder Cup matches. I intensely anticipated this year’s matches to see how the various story lines played out: Could the U.S. team return to the winner’s circle after losing eight of the last 10 matches? Would the Mickelson-inspired reform of team captaining prove itself? Who would emerge as heroes and villains? Would there be any “incidents?”
Story lines aside, viewers witnessed extraordinary golf, probably the best I have ever seen in a Ryder Cup. Can you recall seeing better shot-making and clutch putts made? Par took a serious beating, although it must be acknowledged that US captain Davis Love set up the course for scoring: the rough was kept short and pin placements favorable. It was designed to be birdie friendly, which it proved to be, as evidence by the 19 birdies made by Phil Michelson and Sergio Garcia in their riveting singles match.
McIlroy Tries to Quiet Crowd
Amidst the excitement and superb golf, however, were some ugly displays of fan behavior. Golf crowds who understand the game tend to be generally aware of proper golf etiquette, which above all means being quiet while a player addresses a shot. Cheering for one’s team is part of the Ryder Cup ritual, but booing an opponent or loudly celebrating a bad shot or missed putt is decorum at its worst. Harassing an opposing player or making noise while they play a shot is strictly a no-no in professional golf. Sadly, demonstrations of such bad sportsmanship were vividly on display at the Hazeltine golf course. I was surprised not to witness any physical confrontations between unruly fans and European players, though one almost took place when a member of the gallery yelled something particularly vile at Rory McIlroy, to which McIlroy shouted back, "If you want to back that up, I'm right here.".
To be sure, most spectators were respectful of proper golf etiquette. There was a sizable rogue element, however, that was not. Frequently over the course of the three-day competition, matches were tarnished by spectator vitriol toward the Europeans, including nasty exchanges with some players, the lightning-rod Garcia in particular. Why did such displays of bad behavior happen?
Beer-Infused Behavior?
It appears alcohol was a factor, judging by the number of empty beer cans littering the premises. Attention-seeking behavior by well-lubricated spectators at sporting events is a familiar story in America. The PGA of America did try to head off bad alcohol-induced behavior by establishing a “zero tolerance policy” regarding “any fans that are disruptive in any way, including the use of vulgar or profane language directed at the players.” (True to form, however, it didn’t ban alcohol sales). I don’t know how many inebriates were tossed out, but judging by the continuous stream of disrespect and invective toward the Europeans, not enough.
Alcohol aside, I think there’s a larger problem underlying the disrespectful and disruptive spectator behavior. The vitriol toward the “bad guy” Europeans that played out at Hazeltine is reminiscent of the disrespectful partisan discourse that has come to dominate the American political culture: my side are the good guys, knowing and virtuous; the other side, the bad guys, are dishonest, unprincipled and downright wicked. With mutual respect and civility disappearing from our political discourse, should we expect anything different in an event like the Ryder Cup? Has the poisoned political atmosphere of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign become infectious?
Nationalism on Display
As I’ve made clear in past posts, I find the chauvinistic behavior of hyper-nationalist Americans disturbing. Flag-waving and repeated shouts of USA! USA! USA on virtually every good shot struck by an American did not warm my heart with patriotic pride; actually, I found the spectacle a bit embarrassing. I don’t recall hearing repeated shouts of Britain! Britain!, Spain! Spain!, or even Europe! Europe! at previous Ryder Cups held on European soil. The Europeans don’t seem to have the need.
Partisanship is of course to be expected at sports competitions; it’s part of the allure. The Ryder Cup is no exception. Dressing in your country colors and cheering loudly for your side adds a little extra fun to the event. There are limits, however, to what is acceptable, especially in an international competition like golf with a tradition of good sportsmanship. Harassing opposing players is clearly outside this tradition.
I understand that crossover fans accustomed to vociferously cheering and razzing behaviors at other big team sports events might be inclined to bring such behavior to golf events, but the disruptive outbursts displayed at Hazeltine seemed to extend beyond the crossovers. Who other than someone familiar with golf would know the exact moment—for example, during the back swing--when a noise would prove most unnerving to a player? Watching European players repeatedly back away from shots because of disruptive fans made me feel embarrassed to be an American.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has exposed frustration many Americans feel about what they perceive as a decline in our country's superior position in the world.  They expect the United States to lead the world in, well everything, be it standards of living, scientific discoveries, winning wars and peace, upholding democratic principles, or in athletic competitions. When victories don’t come, there must be something wrong. Resultant frustration feeds boorish behavior, both at home and abroad. Such behavior can even extend to a golf course.

What will it take to restore proper decorum to the Ryder Cup? Since the problem appears larger than golf, probably not with tougher rules and penalties for poor behavior. Removing unruly fans clearly hasn’t worked, and I doubt more draconian punishments that have been suggested, like conceding strokes to opponents whose concentration is disrupted by fan outbursts, or even forfeiting a match when a player is excessively harassed, would either, at least not as long as hate, intolerance and incivility continue to dominate America's political and social landscapes.

When you mix extreme nationalism with a belief in American exceptionalism, add in a Lombardian winning-is-the-only-thing mind set, then remove inhibitions with some alcohol, what you can get is ugly American behavior--what you get is, the Ryder Cup.



  1. Amen. We are the only country that plays the national anthem at every damn sporting event,except for international competitions like soccer, cricket.
    Pride in one's country is one thing, nationalism an entirely different animal.
    Appreciating good shots and great on field performances is the norm overseas yet here boorish behavior prevails.
    Yes it has spilled over into our political discourse and more's the shame on us!

  2. It is evident that alcohol plays a big part in unruly behavior by fans at sporting events. Witness weekly what happens at NFL games in the stands, bathrooms, and parking lot. Alcohol removal from sporting events is a non starter the sponsorship money is just too large to eliminate and second there is a large segment of society that can't enjoy a sporting event unless they have had a few drinks.
    Your article however is not about alcohol but about nationalism and pseudo patriotism at the Ryder Cup. I agree that as fans we have a right to cheer for “our team, our country, or a player” but the act of disrespecting another player because he/she is not an American has nothing to do with being patriotic. Its disheartening that this behavior has spilled over to international golf such as the Ryder Cup. Your point about the toxic political climate in this country is probably the contributing factor. You have stated the reasons why. The current Presidential campaign is a case in point but it has been building for the last eight years after all there's a large contingency of Americans that believe our President is not “really one of us” and what we have to do is “Make America Great Again”.


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