I want you to take a deep breath. Gently close your eyes. Travel all the way back to 2020 B.C. You know: Before Coronavirus.
You’re on your couch on a Sunday afternoon, kicked back with your favorite snack and a beverage watching the Waste Management Phoenix Open. It’s a familiar scene at TPC Scottsdale that has since become unfamiliar: a crowd bursts at the seams around the tee box, and there’s a brief hush as Rickie Fowler takes back the driver. The anticipation is palpable at the moment of impact. The very millisecond the clubface makes contact with the golf ball (or perhaps even a millisecond before), a bloodcurdling yawp pierces the sky: “BABBA BOOOOEY!!!!!!”
Don’t you miss that? I mean, even just a little bit?
The return of golf has been eerily quiet since professional play resumed in June. A lack of fans lining fairways feels like a charcoal stencil of the thing we are used to experiencing in vivid color. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent removal of fans from courses forces us to reflect on what fans really provide at pro golf events. Their impact — or should I say, our impact — can be divided into two categories: the immediate, and the symbolic. And while there will be only 5,000 fans in attendance this year instead of the typical weekly headcount of 500,000, there’s still no better tournament to dive into these dynamics than at this week’s Waste Management Open.
Let’s consider first the immediate. What do fans actually contribute to the environment at every tournament? Look no further than the 16th hole of TPC Scottsdale. Undoubtedly the most electric hole in golf, the 16th built its reputation as thirsty fans flocked to this desert oasis year after year. For decades, the cheers have been loud and the beers have been airborne whenever something notable goes down at the stadium hole. These moments would have looked entirely different without raucous fans: Rickie pumping up the crowd before burying a birdie. HVIII dabbing everyone into submission in honor of Cam Newton. Paddy Harrington booting a field goal into the stands. And who could forget the epic caddy races? I also can’t leave out the GOAT. All of these moments would lose their luster without the rabid sloshed-fraternity-party environment that literally surrounds them. No matter what you think of the antics, and no matter how many drinks you’ve had, this is golf at its best in so many ways: goofy, accessible, uninhibited, and free.
Yet these fans also provide a symbolic presence in normal times. The best part of golf is its community. The people you play with. In all likelihood, your most memorable round is a round played with close friends. Mine was with my three childhood friends at Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin just last summer. None of us played particularly well—no exceptional shots come to mind—but we laughed for 4 hours. These types of moments are what the fans bring to a tournament, especially at an event like the Waste Management: through those gates comes the joy of every man and every woman who plays the game. The 99% of golfers watching the 1%. They both contribute to this thing we call golf in important and vital ways. Consider another epic moment at the 2016 Ryder Cup, when a guy who might not be able to break 100 drained the putt of his life. This is the golf equivalent of jumping into Harambe’s enclosure, and the guy survived! No wonder the crowd erupted. It’s exactly this type of moment that typifies the vibe and meaning of the average golfer in attendance.
Back in 2021, we still have strides to take against the virus, but we’re not quite there yet. Of course, we’ll still tune in, and in lieu of bachelor party vibes this year, hopefully the broadcasters will help us reflect this week on the elements of golf that are bigger than Matthew Wolff’s swing or DJ’s recent dominance. Because golf won’t be the same until this virus recedes — until we the people can once again crowd around the greens. So in the meantime, we wait.
But perhaps we can see normalcy peeking through the clouds of chaos. Fans are slowly trickling back onto courses in the U.S. Augusta National announced last month that a limited number of patrons will be back at Amen Corner come April, making it the first major to bring fans back.
Some day soon we’ll once again reach that oh-so-critical mass of fans. And sure enough, another fan will be emboldened to belch out a familiar prehistoric caw: “MAAASSSSHHHEDD POTATOES!!!” Try as we might, we won’t be able to hold back a smile. And all will be right with the world.
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Erik is a writer and teacher from Fort Lauderdale, FL. When he's not trying to figure out ways to golf for free, he's usually hanging out with his wife and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Koa. You can find more of his work at punchbowlgolf.co