There’s no denying that golf often has a bad reputation for being a pretty drab, polite and boring viewing experience, something I couldn’t disagree with more.
While the stereotype of quiet whispers and gentle golf claps remains (we’ve all attempted our own softly spoken golf commentary on the course with mates at some stage in our lives), without crowds and eruptions of cheering the atmosphere of any tournament takes a huge hit.
The Waste Management Open in Arizona is evidence of this (on absolute steroids, I might add) where crowds on the 16th hole are actively encouraged to get as rowdy as possible, even hurling beers into the air in response to well-struck shots.
Unfortunately, scenes like this can be an anomaly at the majority of tournaments, and right up until the high pressure, dying stages of the final round, the expectation is largely that crowds will be quiet and respectful.
The tone of this is more or less set by the commentary, which is often quiet, whispering, or even – if you have watched the European Tour – somewhat whimsical.
So, why is it that commentators are so keen on whispering and should they show more emotion? This article will give the answers to these questions, and also address some other key queries relating to making noise on the golf course.
Why do golf commentators whisper?
On-course golf commentators whisper so that they don’t distract players who are preparing for, or executing, a shot. It is an expectation that as a player is getting ready to take a swing, all patrons, commentators included, will be quiet to allow them to talk to their caddy and have a moment with their own thoughts before making their shot.
To this day, there are still marshals on-course who will hold up signs indicating when the crowd needs to be quiet as the player goes through their pre-shot routine.
An on-course commentator will usually take some liberties and talk right up until the golfer makes their shot, relaying the club choice, distance, conditions and any other useful information back to the viewers, and with the entire crowd around them quiet, doing this in a whisper is the only way for it not to be an audible distraction to the player.
Now, it probably is a valid argument that a golfer should be good enough to block out some conversation-level chatter while hitting their 2,000th ball of the week, but the content of what a commentator is saying could be the most distracting part.
Standing over the ball and hearing an analyst claim that “this is the wrong club and won’t carry the water” is probably going to be off-putting for a weekend hacker, not just a pro.
The truly peculiar part of golf commentary, however, is the fact that the commentators inside the actual broadcast booth quite often talk softly or whisper too when there are big moments, or just prior to a golfer playing a shot.
Obviously the player cannot hear them, so why would they talk quietly given there is no chance of distracting them or having their words heard?
For me, I think this just comes down to creating an optimum mood for the broadcast and a sense of theatre.
If the entire crowd is quiet as a player stands over a shot, loud, obnoxious commentary is going to feel jarring for viewers.
It slips into the general feeling out on-course, and commentary will usually rise to a crescendo along with loud cheers when a long putt is made, or a shot is holed from the fairway or out of a bunker.
For viewers of other sports, it may be hard to grasp this concept, but in golf, it works.
Can the crowd make noise in golf?
Yes, the crowd can make noise in golf, but not while the player is standing over the ball or executing their shot. It is still expected that complete quiet will be provided for players as they hit the ball, but cheering is allowed as soon as they have made contact. There are some tournaments, however, that are encouraging fans to make noise at all times, challenging the norms and traditions of golfing spectators.
The Waste Management Open in Arizona is a great example of this where fans on certain holes are encouraged to cheer as loud as they want at all times, with players like Rickie Fowler and others even gesturing for the crowd to get louder before their tee shot.
It raises an interesting question: if players can still perform to loud cheers, then why can’t they do so at all times?
I think this probably comes down to two factors: expectations and the ‘novelty effect’.
If a player knows that noise will be coming, they make the mental adjustment to prepare to play a shot with noisy surroundings.
A loud scream amongst 5,000 others is just going to sink into the buzz of the crowd and not even be noticed.
However, a loud yell in the backswing amongst a majority silent crowd is going to have a lot more shock factor.
The novelty factor refers to the fact that this is a pretty rare occurrence, and as long as it is kept this way, it will probably continue to be embraced by all players.
Professional golfers can be a precious bunch at times, so having this noisy environment on rare occasions is almost like an unwritten agreement: “it’s OK and we will accept it occasionally, but don’t make it the norm”.
Is golf entertaining without crowds?
No, golf isn’t as entertaining without crowds, proven in 2020 when the PGA tour resumed from a COVID-19 hiatus, without spectators present. If you are a golf aficionado then there’s no doubt you will still have found crowd-free golf interesting to watch, but without the cheers, interactions and raw emotion from the fans, golf definitely loses a huge portion of its entertainment factor.
Without wanting to sound like a broken record, I still find the Waste Management Open in Arizona one of the best viewing experiences, given the huge level of fan engagement and interaction.
Somewhat paradoxically, the Masters is the other tournament where I completely love the fans, but for almost the opposite reason in how they are so politely behaved, probably down to the strict rules that Augusta National Golf Club impose preventing yelling, cheering bad shots and even the use of smartphones.
For these reasons, I guess traditional and modern golfing crowds both add to the experience in their own different ways.
Will pro golfers ever wear microphones?
No, it is highly unlikely that professional golfers will ever wear microphones, as this was attempted in 2020 during the crowd-free tournaments, yet Rickie Fowler was the only player to show interest. Other players like Brooks Koepka have spoken strongly against it, so it doesn’t appear to be at the top of tour players’ priorities.
Koepka, in many ways, does have a point when he talked about the fact that there are huge boom mics held up on course by the broadcaster only metres away from players every time they complete a shot.
He famously recommended that commentators “shut up and listen” and there would be no need to mic players up individually.
Despite the fact that commentators whisper to avoid distracting players and blend in with the tone and mood of certain situations, there are calls for commentators and crowds to become more animated as part of golf’s modern transition.
With a new crop of players taking up the sport worldwide on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, where crowd behaviour and the ‘vibe’ of golf goes will definitely be a space worth watching.