GONE are the days when golf fans restricted themselves to polite applause at the appropriate moment, and the occasional “Great Shot.”
Now galleries are the self-appointed chorus of a golf tournament – literally so at last year's US Open at Bethpage, where fans serenaded Phil Mickelson throughout the final round with “Happy Birthday”.
The fans' high spirits at Bethpage were put down to several factors, chief among them that the championship was played on a public course that many locals considered their own.
Not all of the revelry was benign. Charles Howell's dress sense was mocked, and Spain's Sergio Garcia finally shook a fist at hecklers who merely redoubled their efforts.
“What they did to Sergio, I didn't like that too much,” Els said of the fans who taunted not only Garcia but also his girlfriend Martina Hingis. “But this is modern-day sports now, and we've probably got a little bit of a different crowd nowadays.
“In a way it's good,” the easy going Els added. “At least we've got their attention.”
The change in golf galleries hasn't been sudden. The relentless us-or-them attitude of the Ryder Cup encouraged vocal crowds, and the emergence of Tiger Woods drew masses of fans unversed in the game's intricate etiquette.
Add a little alcohol to the mix, and golf fans are as ready to get rowdy as those in any sport.
“If you take a New Yorker and a few beers and you get him on a golf course that he's played a hundred times, that's a bad combination,” PGA Tour veteran Stuart Appleby of Australia said of the fans at Bethpage.
Els, however, said it was unavoidable.
“I think fans, booze, that kind of goes with sports these days,” he said. “You sit in the stands and have a couple of beers. And if you like a guy you let him know that you like him.
“If you don't like a guy, you can also do the same. I guess that's the way it is out there nowadays.”
Some pundits have predicted that the crowds at Olympia Fields, in suburban Chicago, will be less vocal, even though Chicago sports fans in general have proven themselves capable of outright hooliganism after a few beer-soaked hours in the bleachers.
When Woods won the 1999 PGA Championship at nearby Medinah, his huge galleries suddenly switched over to underdog Garcia in the final round.
“Bet you a thousand dollars you hit it in the water,” someone shouted as Woods stood over a shot.
At last year's Western Open, Davis Love's hooked drive on the 71st hole was greeted with a cry of “choker”.
Garcia, for one, said he was looking forward to playing in front of Chicago fans.
“Chicago crowds are great,” he said. “I've only played here once, at Medinah in ‘99, and they were unbelievable.” – AFP