Crowds making golf a dangerous game

THE OPEN: Troon is bracing itself for Tigermania, which will prove a stern test for organisers and tempers
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The Independent Online
They called it the Aberdeen Gate. By making their way along the beach, thousands of people managed to bypass the admission gates and gain free entry to watch Arnold Palmer win his second successive Open.

The championship had not seen crowds like it ever before. As Palmer marched to victory, so the inadequate number of marshals failed to contain the mass of humanity that followed behind. All the competitors were affected, not least Palmer, who had to wait to play on every shot.

"There were virtual stampedes as uncontrollable crowds raced along the fairways to gain the next vantage point," wrote Keith Mackie in his history of the courses on the Open rota. "One unfortunate golf-writing colleague was flattened in the rush and several people literally ran over him before he could regain his feet. That night, he discovered the clear imprint of spike marks in his back."

That was at Troon in 1962. The Royal & Ancient, the organisers of the Open, took heed and realised that in order to produce the best tournament in the world, it had to be the best run. But 35 years on, the R&A face perhaps their biggest test since Arnie's Army went on the rampage. Tigermania came to Ayrshire yesterday, when the youngest-ever US Masters champion arrived for his first Open as a professional.

While the crowd was no bigger than usual for a Monday of Open week, most headed out to watch Tiger Woods, although the world No 1 threw a dummy to some of them by setting off for a practice round an hour earlier than expected.

Woods has a police escort with him this week, as well as four specially detailed stewards. Golf, perhaps, offers the best access to autograph hunters, but Greg Norman talked last week about having the "security blanket" thrown over him more often. "People think they know you from all the media exposure," Norman said. "It has changed in the last couple of years. I have feared for my safety at times."

It is part of playing the star game. All that media exposure helps sells Norman's clothing collection and Woods' Nike line. But it is one thing getting around off the course, another when spectator involvement disrupts proceedings on the course. The most vivid image of the US Open is of Colin Montgomerie standing with his arms raised on the 17th green at Congressional, waiting in vain for the crowd to settle.

"It was the rowdiest gallery I think I have ever seen," Davis Love said. "It's becoming more like a baseball game or a basketball game, where people think they can yell or say anything they want."

Tigermania has brought in new golf fans and Woods appreciates that many of them are unfamiliar with the etiquette of the game. "It would be like me going to watch cricket," he said.

Norman says alcohol is a problem and sales should be restricted. It was probably the cause of the barracking Montgomerie received after a rain delay on the second day at Congressional. A Washington radio station received a call on the Saturday morning from a group who said they had been partying all night and were now going out to "harass golfers".

"We definitely want people to enjoy themselves, but yelling at the players has never been a part of the game," Love said. It is not a new phenomenon, however. Norman, who was involved in an incident at the Kemper Open last month, once asked a spectator to join him after his round for a physical one-on-one at the 1986 US Open.

But at Lytham last year, Tom Lehman was spurred on by a "choking" reference from a spectator. "When I see a player get mad at a fan," Lehman said, "I want to tell them: `What's your problem? Shake it off.' So what if he doesn't like you. You don't have to like him, either."

According to David Fay, the executive director of the US Golfers' Association: "Golf still has the best code of behaviour of any sport, you can't have 30,000 mannequins. It stands to reason that the atmosphere will probably be less restrained. I don't see any way to reverse that."

Few crowds are more knowledgeable than those that attend the Open. Lehman recalled playing at Sandwich four years ago and mis- hitting a shot which ended up 15 feet from the pin. "The crowd watching me didn't applaud because they knew I did not hit it well and just got lucky," he said. "They know golf here."

Although picnickers from the Marine Hotel may still have lain out their rugs on the 17th green for a while after the Troon course opened in 1878, those north of the border are more versed than any in the stick-and-ball game. "Scottish fans are the best in the world to play before," Norman said.

What they make of Woods this week will be interesting. The canniest will no doubt realise that rather than fight for the smallest glimpse of the Tiger, there are plenty of other talented golfers on show to be watched in relative comfort.