124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2


Was Justin Thomas wrong to get a fan kicked out? An Angel vs. Devil Debate

February 27, 2018
during the first round of the 2018 Honda Classic on The Champions Course at PGA National on February 22, 2018 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

On the 16th hole at the Honda Classic on Sunday, fighting for a win he’d secure three holes and one playoff later, Justin Thomas got fed up with a fan who openly rooted for him to hit his ball in the hazard. So fed up, he went the extra step of having the guy tossed from the gallery. Thomas seemed fairly proud of it at the time, blowing the smoke off his own revolvers with a parting shot that seemed to come from the climax of a rejected movie script: “Enjoy your day, buddy. You’re done.” After the round, still remorseless, he told reporters that the unruly fan “had to go home.”

One of the joys of being a sports fan is forming immediate and rigid opinions that no amount of fact or logic can ever budge. But in the aftermath of the incident at PGA National, I failed in my capacity as a professional take artist. I was legitimately torn—and still am—so I felt it might be a good to hash this out in a debate with myself, angel and devil style. I may even get paid double by my editors since I’m technically writing as two authors.

(Checks with editors.)

OK, well it’s too late to go back now. And even at the usual rate, it’s important to determine once and for all whether Thomas is a hypersensitive villain (the DEVIL’s argument), or whether he was justified (ANGEL). We begin with the bad man:

DEVIL: You’ve gone soft, and I’m disgusted. There’s no debate that Thomas was in the wrong. Two weeks ago you wrote about how professional golfers are, by necessity, some of the most selfish people in the world, and Thomas clearly fits the bill. He’s another one of America’s Very Special Golf Boys, the kind of kid who literally grew up on a country club, privileged to the teeth as the scion of a golf family, and never had to do anything but play. He certainly never had to learn to take criticism or real-life adversity. So, predictably, he became the kind of entitled snowflake that felt no compunction about demanding that an entire golf course, with thousands of people, serve as his own safe space.

You’ve sat in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium while fans showered opposing center fielders with the most obscene, specific abuse imaginable. And what did those center fielders do? They stared straight ahead, or they turned around and smiled. Once in a while they tossed a ball to their tormentors at the end of an inning, to show exactly how much they didn’t give a shit, and the next time, they’d fake a toss. You’ve seen clips of European soccer matches where a goalkeeper endures two hours of verbal indignity and then actually applauds the fans for their passion when it’s all over. You’ve been in the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium, for God’s sake, where the collective goal seems to be inducing legitimate PTSD in visiting players.

Nobody ever gets kicked out! If anything, their behavior is encouraged! Then some guy on a golf course says “I hope you hit it in the water” and “get in the bunker” and Thomas has him booted? He wasn’t even talking during his swing! If anything, the guy should have been tossed for coming up with such lame material. Thomas is a delicate, thin-skinned baby, and we both know it. Never should have acted like this. Why are we even having this discussion?


David Cannon/Getty Images

ANGEL: OK, look—you make a few decent points. It’s tempting to hop up in your hot-take saddle, put the spurs to the hot-take stallion and leave a trail of dust as we race for the hot-take hills. But you’re missing a few things.

First, golf is a fundamentally different sport than basketball or football or baseball. You don’t have to buy into the sanctified “gentleman’s game” nonsense in order to understand that in an individual sport requiring intense focus, silence is critical. You can’t yell and scream during a tennis match, and even you wouldn’t object if a fan was tossed for shouting during the middle of a golfer’s swing. That’s a step too far. So why is it any more acceptable for someone to heckle a golfer between swings? Isn’t the nature of a golf tournament more communal, more peaceful, more appreciative?

Aside from the Ryder Cup, there is never a “home team” or “away team,” and thus no cause for individualized bullying. Even more than tennis, golf requires almost superhuman levels of concentration, and to have some jerk screaming at Thomas while he’s trying to win a tournament adds nothing to anybody’s experience. It’s cruelty for its own sake. Golf creates its own pressure—it’s a mental cauldron even without the fans, and it doesn’t need an injection of negative tension from some idiot who pays money to yell at the stars.

As for Thomas, you may be right about his background, but you should know better than anyone that the appearance of childhood privilege doesn’t tell you nearly everything you need to know about someone. That’s painting with too broad a brush, and you should be ashamed. Also, can we please address the fact that he learned this move from Rory McIlroy not one week ago?? Here’s what he said after the Honda:

“I would have done it if he said it to Luke [List], just like Rory did to the guy that said something to me at L.A.”

Rory did the same thing a week ago! Without Rory’s action, Thomas would never have followed suit! Why aren’t we yelling at Rory? Rory’s your favorite, your special chosen child. Insult Rory! I dare you!

DEVIL: Look, if Rory had a fan kicked out, there was a good reason. Rory is clean. Rory is clean!

ANGEL: Coward.

DEVIL: If you go by Thomas’ quotes from Riviera, they were actually yelling during his swing then, so Rory was observing a different standard.

ANGEL: Coward.

DEVIL: Don’t bring Rory into this or I swear I’ll maim you.

ANGEL: But I’m you.

DEVIL: Don’t care. It’s going to get ugly. Mutually assured destruction.

ANGEL: Fine. How about the fact that Thomas apologized? He said he regretted it, he overreacted and shouldn’t have had him kicked out. That’s accountability! When do you ever see accountability from a golfer? Bubba Watson would have thumped his bible so hard it made King James roll in his grave. Tiger Woods would have canceled his media appearances for a year. Patrick Reed would have followed the guy to the parking lot.


Stan Badz/PGA Tour

DEVIL: The apology does nothing except prove he’s soft. Rory would never apologize, even if he was wrong. Which he hasn’t been.

ANGEL: OK, now you’re just being an a******.

DEVIL: It’s a fake apology. He’s sorry that people called him out for being spoiled, but when he had the guy kicked out, he thought he was John Wayne. And within the same so-called apology, he said he “felt it was very understandable to have him kicked out” and that the stuff the guy said was “completely unnecessary.” That’s not accountability. That’s “I still think I’m right, but my agent told me to tweet something nice to my fans to humanize me until this all blows over.”

ANGEL: So you won’t be happy until he openly welcomes every idiot behind the ropes to ridicule him on the course?

DEVIL: I won’t be happy until he accepts that being a professional athlete and a public figure means that you have to tolerate the odd heckler. I can’t root for a guy who demands universal reverence. Remember Sergio at the 2016 Ryder Cup (or was it the 2008 Ryder Cup, or the 2012 … one of those Ryder Cups), after he got abused by the crowd every single time he stepped foot on the course? At the end, when they asked him about the experience, he said “I know for sure I’ve never won a major.” That’s the kind of stoic humor an athlete should possess. Thomas needs to learn from Sergio, grow up, and lose his rabbit ears.

ANGEL: You’re proving my point. The Hazeltine Ryder Cup was an abomination, and almost everyone agrees the fan behavior was terrible for the game. You’re contradicting yourself.

DEVIL: I’ll sock you in your face, and you’ll stay plastered!

ANGEL: What?

DEVIL: I always wanted to drop a Vidal-Buckley reference. Just once. It’s a debate, isn’t it?

ANGEL: We’re never going to agree on this, are we?

DEVIL: No. Next question: Is Tiger back? I say no.

ANGEL: God help me.

GOD: Hard pass. I’m not touching that one with a 10-foot pole.