I should have written this yesterday when it was more relevant. By now, much louder voices have given far more influential opinions on the subject. Thomas himself has since apologized. However, it’s still important to get this piece out there. Sunday’s incident is more significant than people realize. Justin Thomas was right to toss that heckler. It brings to light a hurtful trend that has been legitimized and encouraged rather than quelled. Further, I hope it sparks a necessary conversation about the health and future of golf.
First, I want to talk about the incident itself. Justin alleged in his apology that the spectator spent much of Sunday’s round tossing what Thomas describes as ‘unnecessary phrases,” at both himself and his playing partner. The “get in the bunker,” was simply the last straw. Critics of Justin’s decision to have the fan removed have used sports where heckling is expected to insinuate tour pros in general expect too much of their environment. They insist that if basketball and hockey players can be successful while having to regularly engage hostile spectators, then professional golfers should be able to as well.
Here’s the thing, professional golf is not hockey, or basketball, or, even, amateur golf. Golf requires repeated engaging and disengaging of the brain. You move from the front of the brain, the part that perceives and critically thinks, to the back, the deeper part of the brain that executes. The reason many basketball and hockey players can tune out the crowd is because they spend most of their time in the execution area of their brain. They’re reacting, not creating. A round of golf is the equivalent of trying to make 65 to 72 free throws in a row, or throw 65 to 72 strikes with a 3-2 count. The mental process required is different.
Even compared with amateur golf it’s vastly different. Tour professionals analyze elements of their round you and I gloss over. They make decisions on variables most amateur golfers are never aware of. The mental strain for an amateur round versus a professional round isn’t comparable. Noise is different for them. Just because you and your buddies can par while Views From The 6 blares out of the Bose in your cart doesn’t mean Justin Thomas should be able to score a successful round with someone shouting at him every time he swings a club.
Even before Happy Gilmore gave basement bros the idea to yell jackass after every one of their buddies’ shots, tour pros have encountered heckling. You can’t let the spectators get drunk, get that close to the pros, and not expect someone to feel bold enough to shout his most creative profanity in the middle of someone’s swing. But it’s always been pretty contained. Tournament officials enforced behavior and commentators on TV either condemned or ignored hecklers. Additionally, limited mediums from which to view golf made exposure to tournament heckling more difficult. If there’s only one channel’s cameras at a tournament or one radio station broadcasting commentary the chances you’re going to catch a baba booie are slim.
That’s no longer the world of tournament golf. Smartphones and the Internet have made everyone a potential broadcaster, as well as opening a canon of mediums for fans. This has changed the game for hecklers. Before, they had to make sure they were in front of a live camera. Then they had to time their shouting to fit seamlessly within those golden seconds between the crack of the tee shot and the first syllables of commentary. There used to be a process to the heckle, one that unintentionally tampered the number of times it was likely to happen. Heckling used to be about the moment, the real time fame that came with outsmarting the broadcasters. Now a heckler need only to perform. The bigger their presence the more likely someone, somewhere, will capture their antics and give them the recognition so desperately craved from someone compelled to spend 18 holes chasing seconds of audial fame. The new world of professional tournaments favors the heckler.
Further, the way professional golf presents itself compounds the issue. For too long the sport refused to reject its elitist image. Even when players such as Palmer, Trevino, Ballesteros, and Daly challenged the stereotype, the ruling members of professional golf still allowed the sport to be viewed as happily discriminatory. Thus, a sort of populist attraction came with spectator antics. The screamers and streakers channeled their inner John Blutarskis to become the woman from the Apple Commercial tossing the hammer at the TV. They weren’t adults acting out for attention; they were heroes for The People, breaking down the walls of ostentation and ushering in the era of the Proletariat. No one rebuked this belief. Now the PGA and many media outlets are even using it as a marketing strategy. They’re trying to capitalize on the massive exposure potential of going viral or building audiences through alternative outlets, all of which is fine so long as the message is proper. But it isn’t. The current message is this behavior is okay, that it’s now become a part of the experience of being a fan. The current message is that golf is a sport for everyone not because that’s the way the game was designed or because that’s what its executives are encouraging, but because anyone can act as they please because that’s what it means to be a fan of golf.
This is troubling because golf is at the beginning of a new era. The core talent in the sport is younger than ever before. Participation in golf stopped free falling, giving the game a chance to attract new players. But these new golfers have to be attracted in a way that’s healthy. Incentivizing them to the game with the message that golf is a place of trend, something that ebbs and flows with the societal currents only teaches them to view golf as an entitlement, a convenience. It teaches that golf is a vehicle rather than a destination. Use golf to scream at tournaments and satiate your craving for attention. Use golf to finally extinct your liver cells. Use golf to assert your status as Alpha amongst your societal tribe and affirm the inferiority of all those outside it. Use golf as anything you please because you’ve been taught to believe golf and its participation are secondary to larger goal .
When Justin Thomas tossed that heckler it was more than just frustration. It was a moment of momentum to buck the tide and right the ship toward a healthier relationship between spectators and the sport, or to arrest Thomas and demand his allegiance the current majority opinion. Justin’s decision to apologize is an unfortunate affirmation that not only does the majority of the game’s participants believe the heckler to be in the right, but that the sport and its professionals are our marionettes to perform our bidding on a stage of our construction.