By Ed Shanaphy
Get in the hole! It’s shouted after, or often just before, a professional golfer hits a drive or a putt at the US Open, The Masters, or the Ryder Cup. This year, without the spectators, without the crowds, without the feet running along the ropes at the side of the fairways, there is no “Get in the hole!” And, I really don’t miss it.
This week’s US Open at Winged Foot saw the players and their caddies walking the course as course architect, A.W. Tillinghast, envisioned it. Coming up the iconic 18th hole, players saw the panorama of the clubhouse, the swales to the right, and the beautiful vista the members in 1923 first saw when the course was completed.
What has been exceptional are the views of all the holes over the past few months on so many courses as the pandemic has kept spectators from tournaments. Each hole serves as a proscenium, at one time, like the original meaning of the word, the actual stage hosting the performance. But now the holes are the arch separating but rounding out the action for the audience on television. And, in the age of Covid, the holes have really served it up.
Course architect Tillinghast didn’t design the course in a vacuum. This weekend, without the crowds it showed. He discussed with clubhouse architect Charles Wendehack just how to feature the stone clubhouse as part of the four holes (East and West Courses 9th and 18th holes) that finish in a circular fashion around the iconic stone structure. With the advent of bleachers and stands and corporate tents, that view has not been seen in full perhaps since Bobby Jones won the US Open here in 1929, winning a 36-hole playoff by 23 strokes over Al Espinosa. Those were the days.
A Good Walk Spoiled – Mark Twain
Although this year’s champion Bryson DeChambeau, who swung for the fences, may have out-hit anything that Tillinghurst could have imagined in terms of length, Winged Foot enjoyed, as we all did on television, the full beauty and the initial vision of the two famous architects. Gone were crowds jostling for position and adding thunderous applause forcing players to pull back from their putt. Players had long chats with their caddies, all of which we could hear so clearly without the murmur of thousands of whispers among a crowd.
I’m sure the USGA (and the USTA for tennis) miss the revenue streams from the spectators. The “merch”, the food, and the ticket price. Personally, though, I can’t say I miss the crowds. I don’t miss the noise. I don’t miss “Get In The Hole!” or the players acting it up for crowd noise or approval. I remember Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg arguing incessantly about the fans. Golic saying he was playing mainly for himself as an NFL player, not the team’s fanbase. Greenberg, as a loyal Jets fan, saying that the fans are an integral part of the sport. It will be forever a discussion among sport lovers.
In fact, I believe some of the best golf and tennis has been played during the pandemic without the crowds. Many pundits felt that players would not be match ready. But I saw two of the best women’s semi-finals at Flushing Meadow on record. And today we all saw a dominating round at the revered Winged Foot. All without the hoots and hollering.
Crowd noise. It’s been discussed since sports have come back during the Pandemic. Major League Baseball and the National Football League are piping in crowd noise and “crowd reaction” to add to the experience for the television viewers. The finals at the US Open Tennis were quiet with one of the longest and greatest comebacks in tennis history in a major by Dominic Thiem. He didn’t require the New York fans to prop him up as he played exhausted deep into a fifth set. There were no “out” calls made by miscreant spectators and players could serve without someone yelling during their toss.
No, yesterday evening it was just a player and a golf course in full splendor as golf has always been. He had tamed the beast and his fellow competitors as he teed it up on the 18th. Then it was just he and the fairway with the clubhouse in full view as the scenic backdrop. He was enjoying this walk. There was nothing there to spoil it. His bag lying on the ground behind him as his caddie checked the green in front. This was how he had played golf for so many years growing up, the way it has always been played and enjoyed by millions of players. He was walking up to the iconic clubhouse and onto the green as a US Open Champion – quiet and still – just as it had been when he dreamed about it as a kid playing the last hole in the setting sun.
As Dan Hicks finished his coverage of the 120th US Open for us fans on television watching the stage play come to its conclusion, he rhetorically asked if Bryson might be missing the fans as he walked up the 18th fairway. Was this how Bryson had dreamed of winning the title – without fans? Bryson took off his cap for the few souls that were there. And Dan Hicks signed off guessing Bryson’s possible thoughts: “If you get your name on a US Open trophy, I don’t think you really care.”