The Next One's Good
Fans rushing to Phil Mickelson's side at the PGA was a reminder of old golf mob scenes
Two peculiarities make golf unique among professional sports. First, only in golf does the winner score the fewest points. Where else does a 3 beat a 4? Second, golf’s spectators at the most critical moments can go from raucous ebullience to prolonged silence with nothing in between. It’s known as a sport of control and decorum.
That made the finish of this year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah all the more remarkable for some observers who had never before seen crowds swarm a final pairing—the triumphant Phil Mickelson and the “dinged” Brooks Koepka—who in the end were shaken out of the mob scene onto the 72nd green like the last two Milk Duds from a candy box.
Actually, fans have short memories. It was only 2018 when Tiger Woods emerged from the chaotic final hole of the Tour Championship to signal his comeback. “It gives me chills every time I see it,” he said. “Everyone just busted out behind us, and all hell broke loose.”
I remember being caught up in a similar moment at the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol as Jack Nicklaus and Isao Aoki still had to play their final putts, both for 72-hole records. I had followed them for the third and fourth rounds alongside historians Herbert Warren Wind and Bob Sommers, and there we stood just 30 feet from Nicklaus and Aoki as hundreds of fans surged onto the 18th green. Our three faces could be picked out of the Jackson Pollock background that was the cover of Golf World the next week. Bulldozed over, there was this moment of panic. Jack himself held up his Popeye arms to push back the crowd so that Aoki could make his final two-foot birdie, and the two of them were hustled off the green by a phalanx of blue-shirted New Jersey troopers who had materialized out of nowhere.
I asked Jack about it recently, and he recalled similar mayhem in his victories at St. Andrews in the 1970 and ’78 Open Championships. “I happen to think it’s a beautiful experience for a golfer, maybe a little frightening at first, but what you realize: Everybody is there because of you and what you’re doing. They’re not there to hurt anybody, but to cheer you on,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
Unable to consult the late Jack Whitaker, the “mob” expert who got ejected from the Masters telecast for using the word, I asked David Fay, the former USGA executive director, who said the only time a gallery definitively affected a golf outcome was in the 1946 U.S. Open at Canterbury Golf Club near Cleveland. Byron Nelson’s caddie fought through a crush of spectators and marshals to inadvertently step on Nelson’s ball and incur a one-stroke penalty that cost Nelson an outright win. Lord Byron tied with Lloyd Mangrum and Vic Ghezzi and lost in a playoff (to Mangrum).
Tony Jacklin lost a shoe but not the 1969 Open in his victory walk through the masses at Lytham. Tom Watson popped out of the canaille as “champion golfer of the year” five times.
“During one of my walks toward the 18th green as I was close to winning the 1977 Open at Turnberry,” Watson told me, “My wonderful English caddie Alfie Fyles was knocked down, bag and all, sprained his wrist and broke his watch. He got up flustered but carried on. In subsequent years, my walk in the final group up to the 72nd hole was accompanied by two bobbies in back of me to block the surge coming from behind.”
Crowd surges were a part of the Open Championship from the beginning as galleries grew in the absence of roped fairways, and it became customary for fans to walk alongside the players until the 1950s. The Masters was the first major to be roped in 1949, and all the others followed. Still the mob scene persisted in Great Britain, culminating in the wildest finish at the 2000 Open at St. Andrews with David Duval, the former No. 1 in the world, battling Tiger Woods at his historical best, in the final pairing. I was there at a safe distance, so I leave it to John Paramor, the veteran European Tour rules official, to pick up the story:
“It was the worst experience of my life—the only time I felt physically in danger on a golf course. I was assigned the two leaders for Sunday’s round, Tiger and David Duval. David came at Tiger like an express train, four under on the front nine, until Tiger took command again on the 17th. When David pulled his second shot a smidge into the Road Hole Bunker, his head went down in abject disappointment. I was studying him when I heard this rumbling noise and looked back to see thousands of fans breaking through the ropes at the second and 16th holes and sprinting at us full on. Tiger was alert enough to see what was happening, but David’s head was still down with no idea what was coming behind him. The only things I had for protection were the rule book in my pocket and a shooting stick in my hand, so instinctively I held it up to the rushing mob and someone grabbed the other end, and we formed a small cordon behind David. Then some quick-witted marshals managed to hold people off the 17th green. Duval took two to get out of the bunker, so it really was over.
“On 18, Tiger hit the perfect tee shot at the clock tower, and they speed-walked across the bridge leaving old me behind. The bridge was a bottleneck, and this horde tried to jump the Swilcan Burn [about six feet wide], with stewards on the other side pushing them back into the water. It was not a good look. Then, in the midst of the chaos, a beautiful girl took off her clothes and dashed from Granny Clark’s Wynd onto the 18th green and danced around the flagstick before having a bobbie’s coat flung around her and getting escorted into obscurity. By then, Tiger had tapped in a par to win the Open by eight. It was very scary.”
Scary perhaps, but it was also tremendously exciting. That scene was the highlight of Tiger’s Slam, when he won two Opens, the PGA, Players and Masters in a 12-month span.
Frank Hannigan, the USGA bureaucrat who brought the 1986 U.S. Open to “remote” Shinnecock Hills, used to ponder with me how many attendees were necessary. Hannigan believed the millions watching at home on television validated a national championship, but you needed just enough people painted in the frame to ensure that it wasn’t a fake lunar landing in a New Mexico warehouse. We agreed that the 1985 Walker Cup at Pine Valley with no more than 4,000 spectators proved the point.
The pandemic put Hannigan’s theory to the test this past year, and we were wrong. “The fact is, the PGA Tour without crowds was like a college tournament,” as rules expert Mark Russell told me: “Good golf but no energy.” Control and decorum are nice, but Mickelson’s PGA at Kiawah reminded us again that the exceptions are when golf most resembles big-time sports.