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Picture this: Does golf have a phone problem? On players, photos and society’s decay

August 16, 2018

Just as Tiger Woods prepared to rip driver off Bellerive’s 5th tee on PGA Championship Sunday, a noise cut through the humid Missouri air: the all-too-familiar clang of an iPhone ringtone.

The Tiger faithful gasped at the treachery, but Woods was already beginning his swing, and the result was poor. His ball started right and went righter, coming to rest near a group of fans. (Note: Woods missed every fairway on the front nine; the phone may not be to blame.)

Fans swarmed the errant tee ball, delighted. They snapped real-time pictures of the Bridgestone in the rough — “TIGER” stamped on the side — and crowded as close as they could, clearing just enough space for Woods to plot out a miraculous recovery. Woods had a full 177 yards left and an obstructed view of the pin and elected to smoke a nine-iron, sending a high, searing hook up and over the trees that nearly found the edge of the green.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods may be one of the most photographed people on the planet.

It was an audacious shot choice with potentially dire consequences. But hardly anyone standing close to Woods saw the actual shot; the phalanx of patrons were glued to their phone screens, hoping to properly capture the moment in photo or film. A sign stood planted in the ground nearby, comically ignored: “Mobile Device Golf Mode: No calls, videos or photos within 100 yards of play.”

The scene immediately called to mind an image that had been making the rounds on social media earlier in the week. European Tour content director Jamie Kennedy posted a before-and-after: one shot of Woods at the 2018 British Open, another shot of Woods in 2002. The difference is striking if not shocking; in the 2018 edition, nearly every fan is holding a phone. The post spread like wildfire, drawing the ire of hundreds of users. This was more than just a photo, some suggested. It was a sign of society’s decline.

So what do we make of the trend (the new normal?) and the future? Is it a real problem for golf or just get-off-my-lawn handwringing? The answer is complicated.

How did we get here?

Sports Illustrated’s 1965 story on the U.S. Open at Bellerive described Sunday’s crowds as “large and silent galleries, shuffling politely from hole to hole.” There was no silence nor shuffling this most recent Sunday — things have changed and the game and its crowds are encouraged to be more dynamic, more exciting. That’s a good thing. But the PGA Tour has struggled to figure out how to deal with cell phones, maintaining an outright ban as long as possible. This is fairly on-brand — struggling to adapt to modern ways of life is among golf’s storied traditions. How did it all go down? Here’s a brief timeline of relevant moments in Tour phone history.

2010: The PGA Tour runs a series of trials, allowing cell phones at five tournaments over the course of six months to test potential disruption to players. Fans aren’t allowed to capture photos or videos of the action and can only use their phones in designated areas. The Earth keeps spinning.

2011: At the Honda Classic, the Tour announces that phones had been “no problem.” Photos are still prohibited, and offenders have their phones removed and are able to pick them up with claim tickets on their way out, valet-style.

2012: During the first round at the Memorial, Phil Mickelson sent a text message to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem from the 6th fairway making his belief clear that the policing of cell phones is severely lacking. Mickelson shoots seven-over 79 and withdraws after the round. Playing partner Bubba Watson blames the nascent policy allowing cell phones. “Phil’s a great player and a great champion and it just took him out of his game,” he said. “Ever since they made that rule that cell phones are allowed, it’s just not fun playing.”

2015: Phones are allowed at Chambers Bay, the first time a U.S. Open has permitted phones inside. Even the USGA is relenting! Some photography is even allowed during the practice rounds, though no videos.

2016: The Tour ditches its “Designated Cell Phone Areas.” Fans can now take pictures anywhere on course throughout the week, just not actual tournament play — and still no video anytime. This doesn’t stop many people.

2017: Chaos! Bedlam! Anarchy! Beginning at the Northern Trust, fans can now take photos and videos and share them freely on social media. The rollout goes largely hitch-free, though some players back off shots at the sound of camera shutters.

2017: At the British Masters, Ian Poulter unloads on the European Tour’s new policy after hitting a ball in the water. “We’ve allowed them all to take pictures and videos and we tell them to put them on silent and it doesn’t work,” he said. “You get distracted on the wrong hole at the wrong time and it’s extremely penal. It’s really f—ing annoying.” He later tempers the reaction, saying he “should be able to focus better than that.”

2018: Jordan Spieth stands over a wedge shot during a rough first round at the Memorial and makes a plea to the fans beside him. “If everybody could do me a huge favor and not video this shot. Thank you. Sometimes it’s cool to actually watch. Please, no phones. Can’t have any going off in this shot. Thank you.”

Phones are good!

There are plenty of benefits to having phones at the course. Some fans can’t ditch their phones for the day for fear of missing an important call or email; such is our modern world. Plus phones allow fans to communicate with each other, making meetups easier at the Tour’s sprawling layouts. Watching golf is social and should be enjoyed with friends. Furthermore, the ability to check leaderboards gives real-time context to what fans are watching. Let ‘em in! Doing so allows the attendees to relive the moment with their friends and families in real time and later on.

There’s also plenty of benefit to having fans post on social media, reminding their friends through a well-curated Instagram that going to a golf tournament can be a blast. Sometimes they capture scenes that aren’t readily available through the broadcast, too. This can be a different angle of an iconic shot. It can also be spectacular nonsense: remember how much fun it was when Patrick Reed dropped the line “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth” on a rules official? That’s the essential content we gain from phone omnipresence.

Phone Policy
“Golf Mode” is not strictly enforced.

Phones are bad!

There are the rings, of course, and the shutter-clicks in backswings — golf fans aren’t the most tech-savvy bunch. There is also the pressure that fans feel to “cover” the event, focusing on recording their experience rather than on the experience itself. It’s an issue the only Augusta National has held firm on. Former head honcho Billy Payne made it clear he intended to keep the property phone-free as long as he could. “You’re going to have to ask the next chairman,” Payne said in 2017. “Because that’s not going to change while I’m chairman. I just don’t think it is appropriate. The noise is an irritation to, not only the players, the dialing, the conversation; it’s a distraction. And that’s the way we have chosen to deal with it.”

While it sounds regressive and unrealistic, many fans rave about the phone-free experience at the Masters. They provide some support for the idea that we need rules to get away from our phones — we can’t help ourselves. There has always been an element of pursuit in watching golf; you’re chasing the players around, hoping for just the right angle, competing with other fans for the best spot in the gallery. That means endless photo opportunities and the constant pressure to document. A new spot on the course! A better angle of Rory! A glimpse of Tiger! The idea that you may capture a particular special moment on your phone (or that a cameraman may get directly in your way at the last second, ruining your shot) can make it harder to relax and enjoy and take it all in.

Is there a solution? Do we need one?

Before you whip out your phone again, ask several questions: Will I look at this later? Do I already have a picture of the same thing? Will I be able to find the same clip online later, shot by a professional? Am I just taking a picture because every other person around me is?

These questions may lead to you phone enlightenment. Or they may not — one GOLF.com writer notably took a large quantity of photos of Tiger Woods and the Goodyear Blimp. So when it comes to your phone, don’t become a sheep. Use it judiciously and on your own terms.

Whether this is a Black Mirror episode come to life (we’re watching real life through our phone screens!) or a whole lot of nothing, we know one thing for sure: this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. It’s special and memorable being near Tiger, or Brooks, or DJ, or Rory, and fans like to be able to show that off. That’s all well and good. The PGA Tour has largely given up on policing the issue, which is probably the most realistic way to handle it. Who can slow the advance of technology?

As it turns out, there’s still one man with that power. As Woods lined up a shot from the right rough on 18 on Saturday, the phones came out again. Fans jostled for position, hoping to score just the right shot. It was all a little too close. Joe LaCava, Tiger’s caddie, stepped forward. “OK guys, we’re going to do no phones for this one. No pictures this time, put ’em away,” he said. It was hardly Steve Williams tossing cameras into a pond, but LaCava’s tone was commanding and convincing.

At once, the onlookers lowered their phones and raised their heads. For the first time all week, the entire group stood behind the best golfer of this generation and just watched.