The PGA Tour long has been among the more spectator-friendly governing bodies in sports, permitting fans to watch golfers often from point-blank distance and mandating participation from its members in pro-ams, where over 18 holes high-handicappers can mingle with some of the game’s finest practitioners.
In a move to grow the sport’s fan base even more, early last year the tour rescinded its traditional policy of prohibiting cellphones on the course.
Easing that restrictive measure, tour officials figured, would encourage more spectators to attend events such as this week’s AT&T National at Congressional Country Club knowing they at least would be able to remain in touch with the outside world while on the course for hours at a time.
“We’re committed to the policy,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said on Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours before the start of the AT&T National, which is back at Congressional after being held for two years at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia.
The new rule requires phones to be in silent mode, and taking pictures is forbidden. The move applies only to PGA Tour co-sponsored events and not to other tournaments such as the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship, all of which have their own regulations regarding cellphone use.
Recently though, Masters champion Bubba Watson raised concerns over how many spectators continue to disregard the rules and use their cellphone cameras with impunity.
Watson made those remarks at the Memorial, the first tournament this month, after first-round playing partner Phil Mickelson shot 79 and withdrew, citing fatigue. Watson speculated the constant shutter clicks of cellphone cameras may have contributed to Mickelson’s decision.
Mickelson reportedly was so frustrated with the cellphone policy that he sent a text message to Finchem while on the sixth fairway at Muirfield Village.
“It’s sad that cellphone cameras can make or break a championship,” Watson told reporters.
Watson is not in the field at Congressional, where fans will be allowed to carry cellphones for the first time since the PGA Tour voted to modify the policy. Several of Watson’s peers, including reigning AT&T champion Nick Watney, sided with the PGA Tour operations committee’s reasoning that allowing cellphones would yield more paying customers.
Watney admitted the issue perhaps is not as relevant to him as it may be to players of higher stature. Take for instance Tiger Woods, the host of the AT&T National and the most scrutinized golfer in the history of the game.
During the Players Championship in May, Woods was chipping on the par-3 third when he ran his shot well past the hole upon hearing the click of a cellphone camera. Woods then was heard to shout, “Not in the middle of my swing.”
“I think it’s inevitable,” Watney said of the relaxed cellphone rules. “I think it’s much more productive to let people bring their phones and give them areas where they’re supposed to talk than it is to try to keep all phones out because that’s not going to happen. I think, too, it allows more people to come to events. I mean, that’s what we would like.”
“Some tournaments do it better than others, and we just need to get everybody on the same page, and I think it’ll be fine,” said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, a member of the board that passed the updated cellphone rule. “The players have to get used to it as well. We want the fans out there, and we want them happy, and I always say if you go sit and watch what these fans do to get to a golf tournament, we don’t need to punish them more by making them leave their cellphones.”