Ugly. Uncouth. Unacceptable. And, as an example of how the few can outshout the many to pour poisonous venom into a system, the behaviour of a number of USA golf fans in their manic verbal abuse of European players at this 41st Ryder Cup here at Hazeltine, outside Minneapolis, has smeared it all. It’s been nasty.
At this stage, Sergio García is as immune as anyone can be to the abuse hurled in his direction. A lot of the comments are unprintable. One that is – "Sergio, you suck!" – led to an intervention on the player's behalf by USA vice-captain Tom Lehman, who took it on himself to go up to the heckler in acting as the Spaniard's guardian.
No European player emerged unscathed. Thomas Pieters? “Pieters, you’re a dork,” came an in-your-face roar as the Belgian prepared to putt from the fringes of the 12th green on Saturday. Danny Willett? The fans roared at his mother on Friday as she followed her son, which led to the European team that night locking themselves into the team room and actually singing Willett’s name back to him as a sign of collective support.
On that afternoon, Bubba Watson, one of the US vice-captains, had also attempted to curb the verbal abuse being aimed at Willett, only for him to be on the receiving end of vulgarity.
Each and every one of the Europeans has been subjected to rude and offensive catcalls. A minority outshouting the majority, who have indulged in patriotic and partisan support as it should be. Orchestrated renditions of “I believe we will win” and spine-tingling chants of “U-S-A”. Nothing wrong with any of that.
But the undercurrent of nastiness spilled beyond where it should have gone. The incident in which Rory McIlroy confronted a “fan” on the seventh hole of his fourballs match with Pieters against
will perhaps be the defining image of a player finally – and rightly – losing patience with the incidents.
On the seventh hole, McIlroy simply had enough after a spectator shouted derogatory advice at him. This time, McIlroy stopped and firstly stared him out. “Rory, keep walking. Rory, keep walking, don’t ever rise to it,” he was told. But he stood there, called for a marshal and, to calls from other US fans of “Get him out!” McIlroy pointed out the perpetrator and asked that he be removed from the course.
Not long after that incident, the PGA of America issued warnings on the giant LED screens around the course advising the crowds that anyone found heckling would be liable to be removed from the grounds. The action was probably too late and ineffectual; most of the damage had already been done.
Pádraig Harrington, who’d made his debut in the match at Brookline in 1999, which became known as the “Battle of Brookline” such was the animosity directed at European players, said: “It seems to be as bad or worse than Brookline. What I’ve found here is the American players have been distracted, they’re embarrassed by it and most of the genuine fans are very embarrassed. For sure from our side there’s been some motivation in it at times, but there’s been distractions too.”
European captain Darren Clarke called the fans' behaviour "disappointing". He said: "I think you have 99.99 per cent of the crowd that are wonderfully respectful. They are patriotic, yes, but they are wonderfully respectful. You're always going to have one or two idiots that say the wrong thing at the wrong time and unfortunately that's happened."
In truth, Clarke had his diplomatic hat on him in voicing those words. The reality around the course is that his players would need to have skins as thick as a rhinoceros to stay immune from the consistent abuse aimed at them. Not only that, but shouts aimed at players at critical times as they prepared to putt or to hit shots. It’s tough enough to hit shots in the white heat of a Ryder Cup without all that ancillary behaviour. A minority maybe, but there have been enough to cast an ugly, dark cloud over what is an event that should be a beacon for the sport.
“I think there’s been some boundaries overstepped,” said McIlroy. “Not on my side. It’s a tough crowd and . . . you just need to concentrate. I let it get to me a couple of times out there, and I probably shouldn’t have. But it’s tough. It’s long days, it’s 4.30am wake-up calls, you’re playing a lot of golf, every now and again you’re going to let it get to you, especially when emotions are running so high.”
Of getting a spectator ejected from the course, McIlroy remarked: “That particular guy was obviously in the very, very, very small minority and just took it too far.”
The irony of it all is that McIlroy – for every other week of the schedule, apart from when a Ryder Cup is on US turf – is a fan favourite. He ticks the boxes. By the 10th green on Saturday afternoon as McIlroy, letting his clubs do the talking, rolled in a birdie putt, a US female fan clapped. “What are you doing?” asked her husband. “I can’t help it, I love him,” she replied. One of the few on a venomous Saturday of spite.