Johnny Miller might learn something about Chicago sports fans this week.
"Chicago is not quite as wild as a Boston, Philly or New York crowd," the NBC golf analyst said recently.
Miller might change his thinking after watching the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields Country Club. Chicago golf fans know how to make noise, and they have the track record to prove it.
Show Miller a tape of the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, where the galleries were in full throat during Tiger Woods' duel with Sergio Garcia. A few of them got out of hand, prompting television analyst Ken Venturi to call the hecklers "an embarrassment."
Perhaps Miller should ask Jerry Kelly whether Chicago fans sit on their hands. Kelly thrived on the rowdy atmosphere in winning the Western Open at Cog Hill last year. Runner-up Davis Love III, who'd lost a spirited shootout to Scott Hoch the year before, didn't have such a good experience. One heckler dismissed him as "a choker."
And Johnny, have you seen any video of some of Chicago's baseball fans?
The City of Big Shoulders also can be a city of big mouths. The golfers definitely will hear them at Olympia Fields.
Let it rock
Along with Tiger Woods winning his second title, the vocal galleries were the big story of last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island. The trend is expected to continue this year. Chicagoans don't relish being outdone by New Yorkers in anything.
"Chicago clearly is one of the great sports towns," said David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association. "I'm sure we're going to have a championship atmosphere."
Chicago galleries have done their part to turn golf into a participatory eventor, to use a 21st Century phrase, turning it interactive.
Tournament golf no longer is played in a docile atmosphere of polite applause accompanied by muted whispers of "lovely shot." For most of the 20th Century it was like listening to classical music, save for the occasional "You da man" shriek.
Now golf has evolved into a veritable rock concert featuring loud, raucous, occasionally overserved crowds, especially at the big tournaments. It is startling roars of "Tiiiggeerr" a millisecond after the ball leaves Woods' clubface. The air is filled with shouts and whoops and even a few taunts. Decorum has gone the way of the persimmon driver.
"It's a different game now," Miller said. "The players are ready for these kinds of galleries. Twenty years ago they wouldn't have put up with it. Golf's almost a major sport now. It's almost up there with baseball, football and hockey. It's a happening."
Miller said he regretted not being able to soak up the atmosphere as a player in a major.
"Are you kidding? I would have loved it," he said. "I'm with this big train that's chugging down the track. If you think the train is the same old creeper, you've got a problem. You've got to realize the game has changed. Now it's a bullet train. It's going fast now."
Most of the players are eager to jump aboard. Kelly, who lives in Madison, Wis., benefited from the fans cheering him home at the Western.
"Anytime you can interact with the fans, you're going to have a good week," Kelly said. "I love the atmosphere at Phoenix [the Phoenix Open is known for its rowdy fans] and Bethpage. It's hard to get used to, but the game has turned to where we have to get used to it."
And though Kelly said he believes the insults directed at Love were over the line, he said players "are going to have to get thicker skins."
The USGA, long viewed as rather stuffy and staid as the keeper of golf's flame, doesn't flinch at the raucous turn in gallery behavior.
"You don't need a cathedral atmosphere for golf," Fay said. "At the end of the day, all athletes are entertainers. If they weren't entertainers, they wouldn't be playing for pay. I'm not all that sympathetic to someone who wants deathly silence."
There seems to be little doubt that Woods' arrival in 1996 changed the dynamic in the galleries. All of a sudden golf was attracting a different kind of spectator. Many came out to experience Tiger Mania, not just to watch golf.
"He brought out people who had never been to golf tournaments," Western Open tournament director John Kaczkowski said.
Golf suddenly became cool. A tournament was a place to be seen, especially if Woods was in the field. Novice fans weren't brought up in the culture of the game. They yell at a baseball game, so they figure they can yell at a golf tournament too.
Everything seemed to reach a crescendo at Bethpage. It was the perfect combination: the biggest player going after the biggest championship in the nation's biggest city.
The mix proved to be combustible. The Open featured raw emotion, not unlike what is often seen down the road at Yankee Stadium. The galleries were as memorable as Woods' victory.
Miller called it "the best Open I could remember." Fay, a native New Yorker, believed the crowds were tremendous.
"I got goose bumps when I watched the tapes," Fay said. "They did me proud."
Woods laughed recalling the advice he got from Bethpage fans. Because Bethpage is a public course, many in the crowd had been in some of the spots in which Woods found himself.
"A couple of guys said, 'I hit that shot over there two weeks ago ... you've got no shot,'" Woods said, smiling.
Sergio Garcia was the galleries' favorite target. He was taunted about his elaborate preshot routine. He heard comments about his then-girlfriend, tennis star Martina Hingis. It got worse after he responded with a well-known hand gesture during his second round.
"Considering he flicked someone off in New York, I thought he got off easy," Fay said.
Garcia insisted he didn't take it personally.
"It's something that really only happened a couple of times," Garcia said. "Even then, they really weren't all that bad. You have a couple of guys make a lot of noise, and it seems like the entire crowd is bad."
Garcia got into the party mood during Saturday's third round. At the raucous 15th tee, he jumped on the back of on-course reporter Mark Rolfing.
"He said, 'Isn't this great? I love it,'" Rolfing recalled.
Rolfing, who has covered six Opens, said Bethpage was "unlike any gallery I've ever seen. I couldn't even go a hole without someone yelling at me."
And there was definitely a carryover effect. Two weeks later, the galleries at the Western Open were decidedly more charged, especially for the final round.
"People were feeding directly off the Open," Kaczkowski said. "They saw it go on at Bethpage. They thought it was an acceptable atmosphere."
What wasn't acceptable was the taunt directed at Love on Sunday's 17th hole. It was believed to be an alcohol-related incident.
There's no question that for some fans, drinking is a big part of the tournament experience, a root cause of some of the over-the-line behavior.
"If there wasn't alcohol, I don't think the galleries would ever get out of hand," Miller said. "A guy might think a player is a gagger, but he's not going to say anything until he's had six beers in him."
Kaczkowski said the Western does its best to control alcohol consumption. Security is constantly on the alert, but "we're not going to do field sobriety tests," he said.
Fay said banning alcohol on the course isn't an option, especially in the corporate hospitality tents.
"People aren't going to pay big money to have Prohibition in there," Fay said.
Alcohol was tightly controlled at last year's Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England, available only in off-course concession areas. The effectiveness of the policy was impossible to measure, but the gallery was remarkably well-behaved, loud and partisan in rooting for the Europeans but courteous and respectful toward the Americans.
"If the galleries were as polite as they were at the Ryder Cup, the fans can get as happy as they want," Garcia said. "You hit a good shot, then they can clap as long as they want. When the other guy is playing, they know they have to be quiet. It's just respect for the players."
Now the spotlight shifts to Chicago and its fans. Masters champion Mike Weir will be among the players curious to see how they react.
Weir didn't see Chicago's best when he was in the final PGA pairing with Woods on Sunday at Medinah in 1999. Weir called it "a difficult crowd," and he's not sure what to expect at Olympia Fields.
"The fans in Chicago are great, but I don't know," Weir said.
Rolfing has a personal interest in the galleries this week. Though he lives in Maui, he was raised in DeKalb and knows a thing or two about Chicago fans. He hopes they put on a good show.
"Having grown up in Chicago, I would suspect they will try to outdo New York," Rolfing said. "It would be great if they did it in terms of being a better gallery. If we could have the same atmosphere as Bethpage and just throttle it back a bit, it would be perfect."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times