Bethpage Black's infamous "Warning" sign on the first tee is supposed to be a nod to the test that awaits. During the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens, it might also have applied to what—or should we say who—surrounded the course.
New York is not foreign to hosting golf's best—the Empire State has held the most U.S. Opens (19) and PGA Championships (12)—but the crowds at Bethpage Black were said to be a different breed. Bethpage was the first true egalitarian U.S. Open venue, and the locals carried an indelible sense of pride. Not just at the hosting duties, but that their course proved a formidable opponent to the game's upper echelon.
Alas, that ego was, at times, unchecked. Locals were tenacious and unforgiving, happy to let players know they were coming out on the business end of the Black. Worse, there was a heavy presence of non-golfers with no stomach for the sport's idea of conduct. The result manifested in a handful of ugly scenes, lowlighted by fans heckling Sergio Garcia's pre-shot routine.
"We know more than 90 percent of the crowd," Stuart Appleby said during the 2002 event. "We don't need to be told, 'Oh, you should have hit it harder.' That obvious statement, that smart-aleck comment. I think if you take the booze factor away, you'd have almost a normal crowd. If you take a New Yorker and a few beers and you get him on a golf course that he's played a hundred times, that's a bad combination."
But that was in 2002. For the most part, the crowd was relatively tame in 2009, with week-long rain dousing the fury. Moreover, the demographics of fandom has changed drastically in the past decade. With major championship golf returning to Bethpage this week, viewers at home with likely be hit with the "rowdy New York crowd" gimmick ad nauseam. But are New Yorkers really that relentless? Two of Golf Digest's own, assistant editor Chris Powers and staff writer Joel Beall, speak for each side of the debate.
Chris Powers: Are the crowds that raucous in New York? Do I three-putt every time I hit a par 5 in two? The answers to both questions is an unequivocal “yes.”
Rain or shine, if you bring a major to the tri-state area, people will come. New Yorkers understand the magnitude of certain “events,” and make no mistake, this week is an event. Much of that is thanks to Tiger Woods’ return to glory at the Masters, which has reignited the 18 majors discussion, in addition to the pipe dream that he could possibly win the calendar year Grand Slam.
But this week is more than just Tiger. A major returning to Bethpage is a big deal for folks on Long Island, and the fact it’s not the U.S. Open adds to the intrigue of whether or not “The Black” will live up to its reputation. Add in the fact that New York has become a punchline in the sports world right now, with not a single N.Y. team in the NBA or NHL Playoffs, and this might just be the biggest sporting event in the Big Apple since Yankee Stadium hosted Game 3 of the 2017 ALCS. If you think New Yorkers aren’t coming out to put on a performance from outside the ropes, you’re not paying attention.
Joel Beall: The only thing New Yorkers love more than New York is talking about how tough New Yorkers are. You'd have no idea it's the country biggest metropolitan area judging by its Napoleon complex. A true badass crowd walks tall and carries a big stick; pounding your chest indicates the opposite. They are also in desperate need of a thesaurus, believing idiocy and imposing are synonymous. While we're here, their pizza blows.
Yes, fans at the 2002 Open were a different animal. Drop them into 2019, they . . . well, blend in with the crowd. What was sui generis at Bethpage is now a common sight at every Ryder Cup, and though the behavior at the Waste Management Phoenix Open isn't seen on a widespread basis, it's sprinkled in on a weekly basis
There will be catcalls and jeers and a handful of "Boston sucks!" cries, but this ain't Carolina traveling to Cameron Indoor Stadium. If anything, New Yorkers are some of the more knowledgeable fans out there. They view 2002 not as a badge of honor but scarlet letter.
The two things, or should I say players, that could change that: Tiger and Phil Mickelson. As we saw at Augusta, there's collateral damage to those going up against Big Cat, and Phil's rapport with New York is consummate. Anyone trying to impede these Hall of Famers from the Wanamaker may be on the receiving end of the gallery's wrath.
Powers: You make some good points, though that pizza take is abhorrent. Let’s point out that this man was born and raised in Ohio, where ladling a watered down meat sauce disguised as chili on spaghetti is considered not only edible, but a delicacy.
He’s right about WMPO behavior being more prevalent than ever week in and week out, but you can double that type of behavior for a Met Area event. The strange desire to make it on Barstool’s Instagram page or Total Frat Move’s Twitter account brings out the absolute worst in folks, admittedly bros around my age that can’t handle their alcohol. Add in the Tiger factor and every move he makes near a camera will be an opportunity for some hardo to scream something dumb. God help whoever he’s playing with on Sunday if he’s even within shouting distance of the lead.
That’s not to say this is a good look for New York. I strongly discourage behavior like this, but it does fall squarely in the “raucous” category, whether anyone likes it or not.