That Phil Mickelson heckler at the U.S. Open? He was just getting started
Roughly two hours before Phil Mickelson arrived on the 9th hole of Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course to put the finishing touches on his opening round in the 123rd U.S. Open last week, a spectator wearing a shaggy wig, fake mustache and sombrero climbed into a grandstand overlooking the 9th and 18th greens and shimmied his way toward an open seat about 10 rows up, hard against the right rail. Having scouted the course during the practice rounds, he knew this was an optimal spot for what he was about to do.
As the minutes ticked by and Mickelson made his way around the front nine, the fan felt a mix of anxiousness, queasiness and anticipation. But he also felt ready. For months, as he lived out of a backpack and traveled the world, from Portugal to Turkey to South America, he had been thinking about the message he wanted to deliver. He was a hunter, his words his ammo and Mickelson his prey.
“I felt like I’m sitting in a deer stand in the middle of a forest and I’m covered in deer piss,” he would say later. “I’m just waiting for him to come.”
Hecklers are a common sight (and sound) at sporting events. In many cities, rowdy fans giving an earful to underperforming quarterbacks, point guards and pitchers — referees and umpires get it even worse — are a part of the fabric of the games.
But golf tournaments — where galleries keep their phones on mute, volunteers carry “QUIET, PLEASE” signs and sneezes get dirty looks — are governed by a different set of spectating rules, some written, others assumed. Primary among those commandments: When a player is preparing to hit a shot, thou shall not speak, let alone yell. Or else. As the U.S. Open’s official spectator code of conduct states, “verbal or physical harassment of players, volunteers, officials, or fans” can result in “expulsion and loss of ticket privileges.”
Though infrequent, heckling still does happen at golf events, and in the first round of the LACC Open, it did happen. Perhaps you saw the headlines — in USA Today, the New York Post, on this website — about the mustachioed mystery man who blasted Mickelson. The incident was jarring, comical, unsettling, puzzling.
Who was this guy, and from where had he summoned the motivation and gall to rise in front of a hushed audience of thousands to excoriate a famous golfer?
More broadly, what makes hecklers heckle?
His name is Chris Rigby, and he is a 54-year-old former equities trader from Toronto and lifelong golfer and golf fan. This U.S. Open was his first as a ticket-holder, but he’s been to nearly every Masters for the last two decades. (“The most incredible sporting event in the world,” he said.) He was there in 2004 — the first Masters he attended with his father — when Mickelson won his first major, and then again in 2006 and ’10 when Mickelson won his second and third green jackets, respectively.
Rigby’s father, who played at a couple of public courses in Toronto, introduced him to the game when he was 4 years old. He loved it, stuck with it and has worked hard at it, whittling down his handicap to single digits and becoming a course rater for a couple of U.S. golf publications. As a youngster, Chris watched in awe at a local ice rink as a 16-year-old named Wayne Gretzky skated circles around his opponents. Years later, when Gretzky, then the National Hockey League’s best player, left the Edmonton Oilers to sign with an American team, the Los Angeles Kings, Rigby — then 19 — felt like he’d been “kicked in the gut.” How could the Great One betray his country like this? But Rigby never heckled Gretzky for it. In fact, other than his LACC spree, Rigby said he’d heckled just once before, at a Chicago Cubs game years ago.
Rigby attended a small college in Nashville, Tenn., where he played baseball, before taking a job with a Toronto firm trading equity blocks for pension, mutual and hedge funds.
Like so many others, Rigby was deeply shaken by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t work in the towers, but he had acquaintances who did. The horrors of that day stuck with him. In the ensuing years, he traded for a couple of other firms, but by 2012 had tired of sitting behind a computer terminal. There must be more to life, he thought, and he set out to find it.
One far-flung trip led to another and soon he was addicted to travel and experiencing the world’s many cultures. He sold his condo and car, stuffed some clothes in a backpack and went full nomad. Among the 90 countries he has visited: North Korea, Russia, Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Taiwan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Moldova, Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Brazil.
Late last year, he visited Colombia, where, he said, he taught impoverished children on the street the alphabet and how to count. He said he has “seen lots of hurt in this world.”
As a golf fan, Rigby was troubled last year when he began reading reports of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund underwriting a new golf league helmed by Greg Norman. Concern was followed by outrage when American golf luminaries like Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, among others, abandoned the PGA Tour and accepted hundreds of millions of dollars to play for a league sponsored by a nation with direct ties to 9/11.
Athletes, celebrities and politicians, he contended, should be role models. “They’re supposed to lead by example and make the rest of us better,” Rigby said. “Where are the morals and values of this country? Golf is a game of integrity and respect and what all those LIV guys have done, there’s none of that.”
Somebody needed to speak up — and not just Rory McIlroy. “What those guys have done is wrong and someone had to call them on it,” Rigby said, “and it had to be someone from the public.”
It had to be him.
But where best to broadcast his disgust?
At a LIV event? Perhaps. But a major would be even better. The Masters, where patron behavior is monitored with police-state-grade scrutiny, didn’t feel like the right setting to disturb the peace. Nor did the PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y. Not high-profile enough.
How about Los Angeles? The City of Angels, with its star power and beautiful people, not to mention the U.S. Open’s dates coinciding with Mickelson’s 53rd birthday? Yes, L.A. was perfect. He acquired grounds passes for the three practice days and all four tournament rounds, booked an Airbnb in Venice Beach and went to work on his script.
Mickelson was staring down a lengthy birdie putt on the 9th green when Rigby rose and faced his mark. As he began his diatribe — his voice carrying through the cool evening air — fans in the area were startled; it took a few seconds of hollering from the man in the sombrero and stick-on ’stache before they even realized what was happening.
“Phil, I’ve got a new corporate sponsor for you, Victoria’s Secret!” Rigby began, bellowing down at Mickelson. “Red lipstick, fishnet stockings and your nine-inch spikes — that’s all you have to wear every round for the rest of your career, Phil, and they’re going to pay you $200 million as well.”
Fans quickly tired of the heckler’s spiel and began booing him and yelling at him to “be quiet.”
But Rigby was undeterred, adding: “What about all the guys on the PGA Tour, Phil? Every single one of them looked up to you for their entire careers. This is what you do to them, Phil? This is what you do to them?”
By this point, a grandstand attendant had slid in behind the offender. “He tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Sir, you need to calm down or you need to leave,’” Rigby recalled. “So I followed him and he walked me to the left stair[well], which is the exit, and then he said, ‘Sir, you have a good day,’ and I was like, ‘Thank you very much.’”
News outlets on site reported that officials confiscated the heckler’s ticket and escorted him off property. Neither of those things happened. After exiting the grandstand, Rigby said he simply walked away. He left the course on his own volition, returned to his rental property and began planning his next round of barbs.
On Friday morning, Rigby was back at the North Course, this time sans sombrero but still in a wig and sunglasses, accessories he had purchased at an L.A.-area Party City and costume shop.
By the time Mickelson arrived on the par-4 14th hole — he was two over at this point and fighting to make the cut — Rigby was positioned about five rows up in a grandstand behind the green. After Mickelson rolled in a four-footer for bogey and was walking off the green, Rigby greeted his target with a warm, “Happy birthday, Phil!”
Mickelson looked up, nodded and flashed his trademark thumbs-up.
Then Rigby began to dig in, again with an odd opening line.
“Are you going to be jumping out of the cake tonight at the LIV dinner in your candy floss bikini?”
As Rigby continued, his rant became more pointed.
“What are we supposed to tell our kids, Phil? Anything for money?
“That’s what you’re teaching your kids at college? They must be doing really well.”
Boos rained, just as they had a day earlier, but an attendant struggled to get to Rigby because of where he was stationed, toward the middle of the row. When the attendant finally led Rigby down the grandstand stairs, Rigby found a police officer waiting for him.
“He’s like, ‘Sir, you need to wait right there,” Rigby said. “’You need to wait until I get USGA security.’”
Rigby said the officer left him with a couple of USGA staff members, who told Rigby he needed to sit tight while they radioed their boss, who they said was by the 3rd tee.
“You think I’m waiting around for him to kick me out?” Rigby remembered saying.
And with that, he said, he disappeared into a stream of fans and headed for the exit.
The next morning, Rigby was back again. But he was done with Mickelson, who missed the cut. His third-round mark: Brooks Koepka. As the reigning PGA Championship winner strolled down the 18th fairway en route to a closing bogey and even-par 70, Rigby — his wig now paired with a bucket hat, oversized sunglasses and floral shirt — stood up.
“When’s the last time you visited Ground Zero?” Rigby boomed with a raspy voice. He paused, then told Koepka that he should have stopped his “big fancy jet” in New York City on his way to the PGA Championship.
Koepka ignored the heckles, and for the third straight day, the gallery’s jeers and boos quickly muffled Rigby.
When a couple of attendants appeared at the bottom of the grandstand, Rigby began making his way toward them. A video of the incident (above) shows one of the attendants grabbing the heckler’s left wrist and briefly leading him down the stairs. When they reach the base of the bleachers, Rigby steps away from the attendant and walks toward an exit. When he was back on the ground, Rigby said he had removed his disguise. There was no sign of police, but USGA officials, he said, quickly approached him and began questioning him.
They asked for his ticket (he said it was on his phone) and his identification (he said he was carrying only cash). After about 45 minutes, he said, police arrived. The officers discussed the situation with USGA officials and the grandstand attendants, Rigby said, and they also reviewed a phone video of the incident.
Eventually, Rigby said, an officer approached him and said, “Sir, you’re going to be put under arrest for battery.”
The officer read Rigby his rights and cuffed him.
Rigby said he was puzzled by the charge because, he said, he had not had a physical altercation with the attendant. “What I said to the cops is, if I did basically bump the security guy by accident, can I just go over and apologize to the gentleman?”
The officers repeatedly asked Rigby to identify himself, he said. He refused. He was an anonymous agent, he said, working on behalf of 9/11 responders and the nearly 3,000 victims who died that day. “I said, ‘I have no problem going to jail for what I did,’” Rigby said. “I have no problem going to jail for the rest of my life.”
An hour or so later, Rigby was in the back of a police car and soon after that in a West Hollywood police station where, he said, he was booked, fingerprinted and briefly jailed. On his booking paperwork, which GOLF.com reviewed, Rigby is identified as “John Doe.” The charge reads “BATTERY,” but there is no further explanation of his crime.
In a statement to GOLF.com, a USGA spokesperson said, “Our incident report shows a gentleman was arrested during the championship for simple assault for pushing a volunteer while attempting to flee a grandstand. The victim pressed charges.”
Rigby said when he walked into his cell, he was “in a good-looking outfit,” and his cellmates were “like, What the f— are you doing here?”
Rigby was released at about 11 p.m., he said, and home by midnight, with a court date set for mid-July. Shaken from his eventful evening, he said he didn’t sleep much that night. But when he rose on Sunday morning, he didn’t let his fatigue deter him from the next item on his agenda: attending the final round of the 123rd U.S. Open.
By noon Sunday, Rigby was back at the North Course for the seventh consecutive day. Out of respect for the players and the competition, he said he never had any intention of causing a ruckus in the final round. He was on site merely to spectate. Besides, he had made his point. Could he see himself heckling again at another golf tournament? “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see how things go.”
Rigby spent much of the day in the grandstand on the par-4 2nd, he said, and also swung by the American Express lounge and food garden that was available to cardholders. When the final pairing of the day — Rickie Fowler and Wyndham Clark — arrived on 18, Rigby said he was against the fairway rope line, preparing to dash into a prime viewing position when attendants dropped the rope and let fans flood the fairway behind by Fowler and the soon-to-be champion.
When Clark hit a clutch lag putt from 60 feet and then tapped in to secure the title, Rigby was front and center with the rest of the assembled fans. He wasn’t heckling, he was applauding, just like everyone else.