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The Arrival of the Golf Hooligan - 1 October 1999

I never thought the day would come when I would be reluctant to talk about golf.

Years ago I swore to talk about golf no more than once a year, for a very simple reason - golf is a minority sport.

In this country alone, the Americans who have ever played the game or watched it or read about it, are just over 7% - put it another way 93 Americans in 100 have never heard of Bobby Jones or Jack Nicklaus or Jose Maria Olazábal.

Why then do I now feel compelled to bring up a dark day in the history of golf? Because a splendid international golfing event last weekend turned into a disaster for the goodwill that such events are intended to promote.

Let me say, or repeat, what I've touched on once every four years - the Olympic Games and the universal bromide that the games exist to promote goodwill and understanding among nations.

The experience of the past 25 years alone is enough to show that this belief is, at best, a sentimental delusion, at worst, a mantra chanted by cynical men who are in the games to make a packet of money out of it.

You don't have to go back very far to see how the games succeeded in invoking, if not promoting, bad blood, prejudice, bigotry, even gunfire and murder, not to mention wholesale or retail corruption among the very people who run the games.

One year when the four-year cycle arrived I went, in relief, from the jungle of ill-will that the games had become and turned to spend a couple of weeks with my second favourite sport, tennis - where, to my despair, I found that the same selfishness, bad manners and money grubbing had overtaken what had always seemed the most genteel, in the good sense, of games.

John McEnroe, who had been aptly called in England, Superbrat, was at the top of his form both as a magical player and an outrageous bore, tossing obscenities at umpires and linesmen and opponents. And the rulers of the game, both in England and in America, responded with raised eyebrows and an embarrassed cough.

I thought back to a day at Wimbledon, in the 1920s, when the world's ranking player at the time - the tall and usually genial Bill Tilden - threw his racket at the ground.

At that time this was as much of a crime against decent manners as throwing a club in golf - a breach, not of the rules, but of the etiquette which for about four centuries in golf has controlled, civilised, the behaviour of golfers inclined to allow their temper to erupt in physical ways.

Well, banging a tennis racket to the ground is not these days thought a very culpable act, but on that afternoon at Wimbledon the game was stopped, the chair umpire summoned the referee, Mr Tilden was warned - one more tantrum like that and he would be thrown out of the tournament. He didn't do it again.

But it took 10 years of McEnroe's bratism before he tossed one obscenity at one umpire too many. It was in Australia and on the third breach of no rule but of what is known as "verbal abuse" - the technical tennis word for an appalling obscenity - he was thrown out of the tournament to his enormous surprise and outrage. It was a turning point.

At the time I did a piece lamenting the vulgarising of tennis and ended with the thought that golf remains an oasis in a desert of gold and scruffy manners.

Alas for Sunday 26 September 1999 - a date that will live in infamy. For anyone who's a little confused let me tell you simply about the Ryder Cup.

Sam Ryder was, I'm happy to say, a Manchester lad who had, what he thought, was a profitable idea. He tried to persuade his father to sell flower seeds in penny packets.

His father saw no future in it so young Sam said - "Goodbye Dad." He went south, set up his own seed selling company and prospered exceedingly.

He was in middle age when he got the golf bug and any old golfer will tell you that, that golf virus is most virulent in middle age.

Well after he'd seen an informal international match between professionals from Britain and the United States Sam decided to formalise the affair. He fashioned and presented a cup to be called, naturally, the Ryder Cup.

And from 1927 until today the two teams have met every two years, alternating the site in each other's country.

Until - now, maybe 16 years ago - the competition was between the UK and the United States but with the emergence of golfing stars in Europe - Ballasteros, Bernhard Langer, the advanced guard - it has become the USA versus Europe.

The Ryder Cup tournament has always been marked by keen competition, first class golf and, between the teams, vigorous geniality.

Well not quite always - in the last two or three exchanges there's been a note of rowdyism from the crowd at the end. But until last Sunday the excessive jollity had not passed over into a soccer fans' brawl.

Quite simply the American Justin Leonard sank a huge putt on the 17th hole that guaranteed the Americans would win the cup. Now, every match whether between two couples or two men is rewarded with one point for a win, half a point for a tie.

Mr Leonard's putt won the 17th hole therefore the best Europe could do was to win the coming 18th hole and tie the match, giving the United States the half point they needed.

So what happened? Mr Leonard went berserk with joy. He admits now, if a finger must be pointed, it should point at him. He did something nobody had ever seen before in a professional tournament.

Before the match was over, before the 17th hole was played out, he rushed off the putting green to his team mates on the fringe of the crowd and the American captain, who is in private just about the nicest gent in golf, fell on his knees and kissed the earth instead of rushing Mr Leonard back to the green, standing with Olazábal - who still had his putt to make - and waving for general silence.

Instead the American team mates and their wives took off in an orgy of hoopla and general romp. Mr Olazábal stood over his ball for seven minutes looking foolish and watching what he called "an ugly scene."

The crowd - now this is the main point - the crowd seemed unlike any group of spectators who normally watch golf. There is a new breed that goes to watch golf now, as it does tennis. And why? Because more and more the big events in golf have turned into trade fairs, that is the essence of the transformation of golf tournaments.

From an assembly of, say, 20,000 people, who preserve a silence worthy of a church service whenever a player approaches his ball, on Sunday we saw the arrival of the golf hooligan.

That is the title of a piece in last Thursday's New York Times by a man who knows as much about the history of golf as anybody and more about the rules than anybody.

Here is the gist of his piece. His name is Frank Hannigan and he was, until recently, the director of the United States Golf Association - the ruling body of the game in this country.

I should preface this little reading by mentioning that 20-odd years ago I arrived in Scotland to watch the Open - the British Open - and didn't recognise the course - tents, tents selling shirts and souvenirs and flags and clubs, and other, fancier tents called, I learned, hospitality tents - dispensing various products both edible and drinkable, where chief executive officers and friends could slake an early thirst - early or late.

"What is this," I asked a friend - a Scot, "a golf tournament or a circus?"

"Well," he said, "it's somewhere in the middle."

Now - Mr Frank Hannigan and the rise of the golf hooligan.

He begins by noticing that all over Europe the reaction to the American victory has been one of continuing outrage. He laments the appalling fact that some of the Boston crowd taunted the European captain's wife with obscenities and spat at the captain and one of the European players.

Mr Hannigan's comment - "The line of civility was crossed at the country club by a poisonous mixture of greed, liquor, jingoism and bad taste."

He blames the organisers - the Professional Golf Association - for selling many too many tickets - 30,000 for a course less than half the area of the Masters Augusta National.

Then Mr Hannigan puts his finger on a spot that none of us, I believe, thought would ever tarnish golf or its environment -

"Free-flowing beer in the corporation hospitality tents: a business write-off has suddenly become a constant presence in big money golf."

He also mentions the "unprecedented nonsense" of allowing players' wives within the bounds of the arena. He notes that Ryder Cup crowds in Britain and in Europe have cheered American mistakes but "they have never turned nasty."

Well I recall what, at the time, seemed an outrageous incident at the Masters 30 years ago.

It was a time when Jack Nicklaus was beginning to overtake the golf fans' idol - Arnold Palmer. They were playing together and Nicklaus missed a putt. Three or four only of Palmer's fans applauded.

The word got to Bobby Jones who invented the Masters Tournament. He was alive still, though, paralysed in his cottage.

He dictated a sentence which to this day is printed on the back of every ticket you buy for the Masters week.

It says - "Applauding mistakes is no part of the game of golf and we hope that visitors to the Masters will henceforth observe the etiquette and retain their reputation as among the most knowledgeable and courteous of golfing spectators."

Jones later added a sentence to a piece he wrote on the rules of golf. It was this - "The rewards of golf and of life too, I expect, are worth very little if you don't play the game by the etiquette as well as by the rules."

I suggest that the Ryder Cup committee should print and circulate a copy of that sentence to the captains and players and wives of both competing teams.

As for discouraging the hooligans I suggest that the CEOs be compelled to banish their champagne and that in humbler tents alcohol be not served - as it is banned for other juveniles, who attend American college football.


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