CHASKA, Minn. — When players broke away from the PGA of America in 1968 to form what is now the PGA Tour, two properties had to be divided. The tour took the lucrative World Series of Golf at Firestone. The PGA of America was saddled with the Ryder Cup, which attracted hardly any attention in the U.S.
Just look at it now.
Try to count the more than 150,000 fans over three days who roamed Hazeltine, standing a dozen deep, shoulder to shoulder, and filled every grandstand even when a match was an hour from getting to that hole.
It was the latest example that the Ryder Cup has become the biggest spectacle in golf (but only because the Masters would never want “spectacle” to be associated with its tournament). The Phoenix Open boasts of record attendance, but those figures tend to be inflated and half the crowd isn’t even interested in golf.
The buzz at Hazeltine was incredible.
It was the brutish behavior that comes with such an enormous crowd that should make the PGA of America pause.
The stories players once shared from the Ryder Cup used to be about how nervous they were on the first tee. Now the stories are about the verbal abuse from the American fans — certainly not the majority, but enough to leave a bad taste.
“I got called a turd, which is the first time since I was about 12 years old, so it made me feel young again,” said Lee Westwood, trying to make light of a dark situation.
Emotions were raw Sunday night, and the crude comments from the gallery became a popular topic among the Europeans. This wasn’t sour grapes. They simply were answering questions. They gave full credit to the putting and prowess of the Americans that led to a 17-11 victory.
Years from now, the 41st edition of these matches will be remembered for shots from the players, not shouts from a few unruly fans.
The lasting image from Hazeltine will be Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy producing a four-hole stretch that instantly became part of Ryder Cup lore, especially on the par-3 eighth hole. McIlroy holed a 60-foot putt and cupped a hand to his ear to bait the crowd. Reed answered with a 25-foot putt and wagged his finger at McIlroy. Both players laughed, bumped fists and patted each other on the back. It was great theater that defined the spirit of these matches.
No moment was more painful than Westwood missing two short putts, including a 2-foot birdie attempt on the 18th hole that cost Europe a crucial point going into the final day. No one match was more compelling than Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia combining for 19 birdies in a singles match that fittingly ended in a draw.
All that sullied this week was the crowd.
McIlroy got into it with one vulgar fan, stopping to confront him and asking that he be removed. Thomas Pieters was about to take his putter back on a 4-footer to halve the hole in a foursomes match when some genius screamed out, “Hit it in the water.”
The cheering and jeering at the Ryder Cup is unlike any other golf event.
There were indications early that Hazeltine might be over the top, however. Fans tend to wait a second or two when the visitors hit a bad shot before cheering the good fortune of the home team. As early as Friday morning, cheers for Europe’s bad shots were loud and immediate. Andy Sullivan hit a tee shot into the water on the 17th hole and cheers rang out before there was so much as a ripple in the water.
And it got worse.
“We want to play this tournament in the manner in which it should be played,” McIlroy said. “The American gallery are fantastic. They really are. We play week in, week out on the PGA Tour, and they couldn’t be nicer to us. They greet us like we are one of their own. But this week, at times, it went a little bit too far.”
The PGA of America stepped in, but not until Sunday when the Americans had a three-point lead. It urged fans to be passionate and respectful, and pledged a “zero tolerance policy” to remove anyone who was disruptive and shouted profanities at players.
The Americans don’t have an easy time when they play the Ryder Cup in Europe, though the tone is undeniably different. American fans tend to make it personal. Maybe that’s a product of having lost the Ryder Cup too many times over the last 20 years.
Or maybe there are simply too many fans on the course for 32 matches over three days.
Selling more tickets is only going to increase the odds of having more bad eggs who give American fans a bad name. It started at Brookline. It isn’t getting better. If the PGA of America is not careful, the biggest spectacle in golf is going to become a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.