DUBLIN, Ohio — There isn’t a pro golfer who doesn’t have a story about a “Play That Funky Music” ringtone coming from the gallery during a backswing, or the time a tourist with a flip phone was snapping photos in the middle of a critical putt.
The Memorial is the latest tournament to try to do something about it.
The event, which tees off next week, allows fans to carry cellphones on the course if they are put on vibrate. For the first time, a cadre of volunteers will follow the most popular groups, hoping to alleviate spectators’ loud rings and the efforts of amateur photographers.
Jack Nicklaus, founder and host of the Memorial, applauds (but not during a shot) the steps taken.
“The tournament has achieved the balance between giving patrons the ability to use their mobile devices in the appropriate and permitted areas, while giving the players in the field the ability to compete without disturbance, distraction or interruption,” he said.
Areas will be set aside to make and take calls. The patrolling volunteers will try to clamp down on any abuses everywhere else.
A year ago at the Memorial, Phil Mickelson cited “mental fatigue” for withdrawing after the first round at Muirfield Village. Most believe the real reason was his frustration with a flood of distractions from outside the ropes involving cellphones.
“It took Phil out of his game,” said Bubba Watson, who joined Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in that rock-star grouping. “Phil’s a great player and a great champion and it just took him out of his game. It’s sad. It’s sad that cellphones can make or break a championship.”
As a result, the Memorial is trying to stave off a repeat.
“That group last year made us realize that we had work to do in improving our mobile-device policy,” said Dan Sullivan, the Memorial’s executive director. “It wasn’t isolated to that group.”
Nothing is isolated about the problem; it’s everywhere.
Se Ri Pak was hitting a tee shot on the fourth hole of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open when a cellphone rang in the stands. During the Web.com tour event in Panama a couple of years ago, the phone of Alastair Presnell’s caddie went off five times in seven holes. Presnell finally asked his caddie to throw the thing into a bush, which he did.
The PGA Tour and others are trying to meet people halfway. Bay Hill and The Players Championship also have volunteers who confiscate the phones of offending spectators and issue claim checks. The fans can pick up their devices later.
At last year’s PGA Championship, marshals would stop someone using their phone and put a red check mark on the back. If there was already a check mark there, meaning they had already been warned, the phone was taken away until the spectator claimed it upon leaving the course.
The British Open allowed cellphones for the first time last year but observers said there were continual abuses of fans using cameras during play. Adding to the confusion, The Open even offers tournament updates to mobile devices for those walking the course.
At the Masters, you must leave your phone at the gate. The prevailing opinion is that Augusta National will never, ever permit cellphones for spectators.
Just as cellphones have become a part of daily life, they’ve become a necessary evil for players.
Tiger Woods has won 14 major championships and is the defending champ at the Memorial, where he’s won five times. He’s grown accustomed to the snaps, clicks and rings — although many of his playing partners have not.
“When they’ve played with me on the weekend rounds, they’re not quite used to the amount of movement and … well, now the new thing is the cellphones going off,” he said last year. “It costs them a shot here and there, and that’s what it’s done to me in most of the tournaments I’ve played.”
Some places are worse than others for distractions. But not even the world’s No. 1 player has an answer for how to combat them.
At Woods’ own AT&T National last year, the crowds were large and particularly loud. Marshals regularly had to collect cellphones from fans caught taking pictures during the tournament.
Watson, the 2012 Masters champion, says the situation can be almost unbearable for players.
“When they make these marquee pairings, more people are going to follow them and more people want to take pictures. So it makes it very difficult,” Watson said after Mickelson’s upsetting round last year. “Ever since they made that rule that cellphones are allowed, it’s just not fun playing.”
It’s an odd predicament for golf’s ruling bodies. After all, the sport’s financial lifeblood is large corporations which buy the most ad time and gobble up tournament sponsorships. Those are institutions run by businesspeople who need to be linked to their office by a cellphone. Yet most governing bodies disdain anyone having cellphones on the course during tournament play.
Irony of all ironies, the USGA offers its book of rules as an app for Android devices or iPhones — an app that can’t be used during the U.S. Open by fans because the USGA prohibits phones on the course during the tournament.
“We put competition first and foremost,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said in 2011. “We’re focused on fans, but if we were totally focused on fans you’d have the rope lines closer to play. We’re more focused on the competition itself. And until we, as an organization, are convinced that we can conduct a U.S. Open, a Women’s Open, U.S. Amateur, Girls’ Junior, with spectators using cellphones, we’re going to continue to prohibit them.”
On the other hand, most public events are a feeding frenzy for those with cameras on their cellphones. Been to a concert lately? Odds are, arrayed in front of you were hundreds of tiny screens all taking video or photos as the music plays.
It’s just like that on the PGA Tour, except the players hate loud or sudden noises while plying their trade. They can mentally blot out the sounds of blimps overhead, birds chirping and roars elsewhere on the course but they jump 3 feet when a phone clicks somewhere on the other side of the ropes.
“The thing is, everyone thinks the players can’t play with noise,” said Peter Senior, who competes on the The Champions Tour. “They can. But when it’s really quiet and you hear it, that’s the problem. If there’s constant noise — even yahooing — the guys can play as long as it’s constant. But when it’s dead quiet and then something happens, the guys get upset.”
In another fitting irony, after Mickelson was angered by all of the cellphone distractions during his first-round 79 a year ago at the Memorial, what did he do? He whipped out his own phone on the sixth fairway and texted a message to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem about all the distractions on the course provided by … well, cellphones like the one he had in his hand.
Even Woods has used his cellphone — during a pro-am, not a tournament — to call one of his representatives to get his 3 wood regripped at Quail Hollow in 2009.
So it’s not just parents checking on the babysitter who think that it’s handy to have a cellphone at all times.
Muirfield Village hosts the Presidents Cup in October, a team competition pitting the U.S. vs. an International side. Even such major events are immune from cellphone distractions.