‘Happens more often than you think’: Why fan misbehavior could be golf’s next big problem

With gambling becoming more prevalent in pro golf, fans heckling players is becoming more impactful than ever before.

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Golf isn’t like other sports. When action — the swing — is happening, fans are expected to keep quiet. There’s no home crowd trying to get in the visiting teams’ head. The decorum of golf is predicated upon sportsmanship — and that includes fan behavior.

In the current era of golf, however, fans have more stake in the outcome of golf tournaments than ever before. With sports gambling becoming more and more intertwined in the game, getting in players’ heads can be in the best financial interest of fans — decorum be damned.

The PGA Tour, much like other major sports leagues, has leaned into gambling in recent years. FanDuel and DraftKings are official gambling partners of the Tour, and Bet365, BetMGM and PointsBet have relationships with the Tour, too. Live betting on golf just launched on FanDuel, meaning it’s easier than ever to place a wager from the gallery.

As my GOLF.com colleague Sean Zak pointed out recently, this makes for a risky future. With fans so close to the action — and with such easy access to potentially distract players — they have more power over the outcome than fans of most sports. Golf is typically quiet before the shot. When that norm is disrupted, it can have a huge influence on the result.

We’ve already seen a couple examples of over-zealous gamblers inserting themselves into the action this summer. Last month, a fan at the American Century Championship who’d placed a wager on Steph Curry to win the event yelled in Mardy Fish’s backswing on the final hole in an effort to distract him. His tactic worked — Fish hooked his tee shot and Curry went on to capture an epic victory. Max Homa dealt with a similar situation last week in Chicago. As he stroked a birdie putt late in the third round, a fan openly rooted for him to miss the putt. Much to the fan’s chagrin, Homa’s putt went in — but it doesn’t erase the inappropriate nature of the act.

“It’s just always something that’s on your mind,” Homa said. “It’s on us to stay focused or whatever, but it’s just annoying when it happens.”

This sort of thing happens quite frequently. According to Jon Rahm, fans are always betting on the outcome of their shots.

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“I feel like we hear it every single round,” Rahm said at this week’s Tour Championship. “That happens way more often than you guys may hear. I mean, it’s very, very present. In golf, spectators are very close, and even if they’re not directly talking to you, they’re close enough to where if they say to their buddy, ‘I bet you 10 bucks he’s going to miss it,’ you hear it. So it happens more often than you think.”

These sorts of distractions — be they deliberate or not — can have a huge impact on the result. And while there’s yet to be a high-stakes moment in which a heckler inserts themself (like at a crucial moment at a major championship), it’s something that Rahm believes the Tour needs to be proactive about.

“I think the Tour maybe should look into it because you don’t want it to get out of hand,” he said. “It’s very easy, very, very easy in golf if you want to affect somebody. You’re so close, you can yell at the wrong time, and it’s very easy for that to happen.”

There’s only so much the Tour can do to hinder this kind of behavior, however. Fans are extremely close to the action in golf, and with so much silence pre-shot, even the faintest of whispers can affect a swing, let alone a full-out yell. Mistakes happen, and most times the extra noise is not deliberate. It’s when fans are purposefully inserting themselves into the action that things become a problem.

“It’s a complicated subject,” Rahm said.

Indeed it is — but it’s one that isn’t going away any time soon.

Zephyr Melton

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with the Texas Golf Association, Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf. He can be reached at zephyr_melton@golf.com.