The PGA Tour is in the midst of a five-week stretch in which tournament golf is being played but galleries are prohibited. July’s Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, is slated to be the first event to welcome fans back to the course, though only at 20 percent of the course’s total capacity, which equates to around 8,000 people.
A decision has yet to be made regarding fan attendance at the upcoming Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Two high-profile Tour players, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, have already made it known that they do not support a Ryder Cup being played without fans, with Koepka going so far as to say he would consider not playing if fans are not allowed.
One person who knows something about the potential impact of fan support at the Ryder Cup is 1999 Team USA hero, Justin Leonard, who memorably holed a 45-foot putt to cap what was at the time the largest come-from-behind victory in Ryder Cup history.
“I’m not sure if it would have happened on that Sunday in ’99 without the support of those fans in the New England area,” Leonard told GOLF.com in an interview conducted via Zoom. “I think it would have been more difficult for us to make that comeback. We took a lot of energy from the crowd that day.”
Leonard, 48, has 12 career Tour victories, and is a regular contributor to Golf Channel tournament broadcasts as an analyst, making him uniquely positioned to offer perspective as both a player and a member of the media. When asked about Kopeka and McIlroy’s reluctance to embrace the event without fans, Leonard said he understood the sentiment.
“The fans really make the Ryder Cup experience what it is,” he said. “So I am not so sure I wouldn’t be lobbying to play it without fans. I think that it’s important for the game of golf. It’s important for sport. And it’s important for people’s morale, and give people something to look forward to during the times of uncertainty.”
Another reason a fan-free environment isn’t ideal? When you get the chance to play on home soil, having the gallery on your side can make a huge difference.
“If I was a European player, I would love to play in the Ryder Cup in Wisconsin without fans because having that home crowd is an advantage for that home team,” said Leonard.
Rather than stage the exhibition without fans entirely, Leonard is hopeful that Whistling Straits can welcome a reduced number of fans, similar to what we can expect to see at the upcoming Memorial.
“Instead of 20,000 to 25,000 [fans] per day, maybe it’s just a few thousand people,” Leonard said. “It allows the players to have that experience. It allows for fans to have the experience of attending the Ryder Cup. And it gives us all who will be watching at home something to really look forward to.”
You can check out the video of our conversation with Leonard below.