The People And the Open

FARMINGDALE, N.Y.-No one knows for sure what it would be like to watch golf at Yankee Stadium, but the noise coming from the bleachers at the Black Course of Bethpage State Park during the U.S. Open may have provided a clue.

At times, the crowds didn’t even need to see any golf to get excited.

“Your side sucks!” sang one crowded set of bleachers across the fairway to its counterpart.

“We’ve got George!” came one response, when Governor George Pataki-making his second appearance at the tournament-engaged in a little retail politicking by mingling on the other side. (The reply: “You still suck!”)

“Welcome to the Hill!” was the joyful reaction each time a careless spectator lost his or her footing on the slippery hill behind the 17th green.

People massed around the green amused themselves during a final-round rain delay by directing semi-obscene chants at clouds obscuring the sun, breaking into wild cheers whenever the forces of light appeared to gain the upper hand.

They were hardly less ebullient when it came to the golfers themselves.

Tiger Woods, the eventual winner, had the usual mob of worshippers trailing him, and noted at one point that they were louder than anywhere else he’d ever played. Padraig Harrington, an Irishman who was in the running for a while, had a festive army of sunburnt, white-socked supporters in green soccer tops following him around all day. Nick Faldo, the earnest Englishman who played the whole tournament in an “I Love New York” baseball hat, got a raucous reception on every hole. And Phil Mickelson, the popular lefty who made a late run at the leader, was practically battered to death with hospitality throughout the last day of play as onlookers cheered pretty much every move he made. (They even sang “Happy Birthday” to him as he came up the 17th fairway, prompting a disbelieving smile and a doff of the visor. Mr. Mickelson turned 32 on June 16.)

But there were also players who looked as if they would rather have been just about anywhere else. Craig Stadler, a fan favorite known as “The Walrus,” clearly had had enough of the crowd’s affections by the last day of play. He stalked around the last few holes, heaving clubs in disgust-prompting more unsolicited cheers.

And then there was the young Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who had the most cause for complaint. He was heckled without mercy, prompted both by some mild complaints he’d made to reporters about the condition of the golf course, and by a moment of excess in which he directed a gesture toward some spectators that was not intended to thank them for their interest in his play. “Hey, Sergio, put on your diaper, you baby!” screamed one “fan” (twice, in case he wasn’t heard the first time). On the last day of play, Mr. Garcia had the additional misfortune of being paired with Mr. Woods, who tends to attract the biggest, loudest and often the most dumb-assed galleries. Mr. Garcia absorbed taunts for most of the round, including some on his back swing, and he, too, seemed thoroughly fed up by the time everything was finished.

Still, considering the record size of the galleries throughout the tournament, as well as a number of other factors-exact figures aren’t available, but it’s a fair bet that a world record was set for consumption of Michelob Light over a four-day period-it was a relief that there were no major incidents of misbehavior. The crowds policed themselves admirably for the most part, which is a testament to the tens of thousands of spectators, volunteer marshals and Bethpage employees who were thrilled at the chance to watch the world’s best golfers playing out of the same bunkers, rough and thickets they had come to know so intimately in the past. The U.S. Golf Association already is talking about bringing the Open back to Bethpage in 2009, which suggests that the organizers appreciate the excitement they created when they decided to hold the tournament in this most public of public golf facilities.

Now that it’s all over, the attention of the Bethpage faithful will return to figuring out how to get a tee time at any of the five courses there without waiting on line for 12 hours, a task that will be made considerably harder by the post-Open celebrity lingering over the entire complex.

For USGA officials-the guardians, in their words, of that which is “For the Good of the Game”-they are left to ponder the ramifications of holding what they called a “People’s Open” at a municipal course on Long Island. They got what they wanted-and golf as a spectator sport will never be the same.

(Terry Golway will return to this space next week.)