Would Rory McIlroy be a bad golfer if the crowds were allowed to chant?
Nobody asks the fans who have paid to watch GAA, soccer, rugby or cricket to keep the noise down. What’s so special about golf?
Several hundred people breathing over his shoulder: Rory McIlroy at the Irish Open at Carton House this week. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty
There was recently a phenomenon among golf spectators – more accurately a handful of them, almost exclusively in the United States – that involves the thwack of a ball being greeted by some genius shouting, “Mashed potatoes!”
You can find plenty of examples on YouTube, most from after 2010, when a video was uploaded of someone yelling the culinary come-on after a Tiger Woods drive.
In the silence of a few thousand people peering after a rapidly disappearing tiny white ball, the shout crashes out of the air like a piano dropping down stairs.
That video helped popularise golf trolling, so you can now find medleys of “Mashed potatoes!” across several videos, each one pulling down the hush with a great indelicacy.
The first time it was done it might have been a surrealist play on the yelling of “In the hole!” or “You’re the man!” or the absurdist “Be the ball!”
Graeme McDowell has expressed his annoyance at the trend while alerting us to another, player-specific example. “I’m kind of fed up with all this ‘Mashed potatoes!’ and all this rubbish that the crowd are kind of enjoying shouting right now.
“Keegan [Bradley] had a guy out there who after every shot he was yabba-dabba-dooing, and it was just stupid. It’s something for the players, it’s not a lot of fun and it’s becoming a little bit of a cool thing to do for the spectators. It kind of gives them their two or three seconds of fame. But it gets a little frustrating for everyone.”
The reason why “Mashed potatoes!” or any shout has such potency in golf is, first, because of the silence it interrupts and, second, because it is the sound of an etiquette being smashed.
The Irish Open is on this weekend, and there might not be so many mashed potatoes, but there will be the hushes and the Silence Please placards, and the golfers who take a step back from addressing their ball to glare at some trigger-happy photographer or chattering spectator.
And the question is: would golf suffer so much if silence were done away with? Should any sport insist that the people who have paid in to watch shut up if they want to enjoy the privilege of watching millionaires battling it out to the soundtrack of birdsong?
Golf is not alone in its insistence on silence – a hush that serves to turn any interrupting sound all the way to 11. As Wimbledon slides towards its second week, tennis’s own version of “Mashed potatoes!” continues to come not from the spectators but from the players who grunt and shriek their way from rally to rally as if the balls are wired to the mains and the racket acts as an earth.
The rhythm of tennis – tock, shriek, tock, shriek, tock, shriek, applause – makes tennis almost unwatchable on television. Or, more ironically, the silence that is insisted on but that then emphasises the tortured-gull shrieks of the players means the only way to watch Wimbledon is with the sound turned down.
It is often argued that the technical precision of golf requires silence to help them concentrate, even as golfers swing while several hundred people breathe over their shoulders.
In tennis, it is said, players’ positioning reacts to the sound of the ball on court.
Yet cricketers – a bat in the hand and a ball bouncing off the grass – don’t need silence. Neither do hitters in baseball, or throws throwing a free in basketball, or penalty-takers in soccer.
Nobody ever asked Croke Park to pipe down in case they put Eoin Larkin off while he took a free. The precision of a darts throw takes place against the general thrum of a crowd getting the pints in.
In Munster, where the silence is famously observed during place kicks, it has developed into a key weapon in the home crowd’s armoury, a quiet so crushing as to intimidate a visiting kicker.
But silence is only tradition in rugby, and is not a requirement for a kicker’s routine. French crowds and their slow hand clap put paid to that idea long ago.
The key factor, it seems, is not the noise but its consistency. Silence is easily punctured, so it becomes somewhat more precious. But it is a learned preciousness.
Would golf’s world order be much different if silence went the way of plus-fours? It is hard to believe that Rory McIroy would be a mediocre player under the slow hand clap of a crowd treating his pre-backswing routine like it might a long-jumper revving up for launch.
We won’t find out too soon. In the silence, only tradition has a voice.