Heckler Hell? Why I think Justin Thomas did the right thing

Justin Thomas sounds like just the kind of guy I would love to play golf with. Ok, he’s young, athletic and one of the very best players in the world but what really lifted him above all of the other superstars of the game last week was the way that he dealt with a heckler at the Honda Classic in Florida last Sunday.

You never know who you are going to meet when you decide to confront a total stranger these days, but Justin wasn’t going to worry about that. Not for him, the deaf ear and blind eye and just move on. When the village idiot shouted ‘get in the bunker’ after Thomas’s tee shot at the 16th, the player went looking for the source of the cry and got his abuser thrown out. ‘Enjoy your day, you’re done,’ said our hero as Numpty made his early exit.

Golf is better than that. Sometimes our sport is a bit stiff and stuffy but golfers will err on the side of protecting the game’s values rather than allowing them to be swept away into the gutter of headline hype. Thomas was on the way to winning the $1.2 million first prize and so getting involved with some no-mark he will never meet again could have been a distraction. That didn’t stop him doing what needed to be done.

What do you do when you’re playing behind a group that are impossibly slow? You know who I’m talking about… they take half-a-dozen practice swings, then change club, then make half-a-dozen more swishes at fresh air, then they duff their shot, then they adopt a pose, then rehearse the technique they were taught, then clean the club face, then wheel their trolley as far away from the next tee as is possible before checking their phone and scratching their ass.

Do you adopt the ‘teapot’ stance as a mark of protest, mutter under your breath and say nothing to them… or do you find some Justin Thomas time to politely ask them to speed up? Let’s not forget that Justin probably took the thick end of five hours to complete his winning round at the Honda. The pros don’t exactly set the best example on pace of play, but we all have a responsibility to maintain standards in golf. We shouldn’t be afraid to try.
It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like trying to keep your concentration on a course where there are tens of thousands of spectators wandering round and a similar number of cans of beers being consumed. The par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale is a one-off for now… a hole surrounded by 20,000 baying, booing, boozed-up fans that makes the aptly-named Waste Management Open a unique experience. As long as it stays that way!

Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter didn’t help when they started encouraging first tee fans to whoop it up at the Ryder Cup. They turned the Captains Drive-in into a mass spectator sport. Funnily enough, I wouldn’t mind hitting my opening shot to a chorus of ‘Ole ole ole’… it is isolated sounds amid a blanket of silence that put you off. Our long 16th hole runs parallel to a popular dog-walking path and there is one hearty woman famed for her shrill screaming of ‘Freddy, Freddy!’ right at the top of your backswing.

Most spectator sports are theatres of open mockery and derision. The ‘boo hiss’ culture is the norm. In golf, there have been notorious examples of such behaviour in the Ryder Cup for a while when it’s ‘us versus them’, but the habit has spread. The ‘get in the hole’ sad shouters have given way to the novelty ‘mashed potatoes’ vocal exhibitionists. It’s a creeping disease and last week Justin Thomas decided that it had crept far enough.
When you’re stuck behind the slow coaches in the Saturday morning roll-up, it soon becomes apparent that most of their bad habits have come from watching the pros at work… the endless pre-shot routines, the fifteen different looks at the line of a putt, the marking of an 18-inch tap in. We are all trying to replicate what we watch with Nick Dougherty late on a Sunday night under blue Florida skies, so thank you Mr Thomas for setting the rest of us a good example for a change.

My instincts are the same as most golfers… good, bad or billionaire. If I hit a bad shot my first recourse is to the bad lie, the bad weather, the bad back or the bad dog walker and Freddy. Only after having some time to reflect do I begin to consider the remote possibility of a bad swing being part of the issue. If only I had someone who cared enough to follow me and shout ‘get in the bunker’ I’d have a regular excuse.
Justin Thomas isn’t looking for excuses. He is looking to shut everything and everyone else out so that he can play the game to his limits. That’s why he tackled his verbal stalker last week, that’s why I will be following his example and (ever so nicely) trying to promote and defend the best values of our game from now on. So, what are the examples of bad practice that most annoy you on a golf course? Let’s draw up a hit list, shall we?

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