Pro golfers facing threats off fairways
Security is increasingly forming around players due to criminal menace
His day of practice done at Firestone Country Club, Brooks Koepka headed to his courtesy car in the players’ parking lot, which was cut off from the public by temporary fencing covered with banners.
Before disappearing behind the fence, Koepka rebuffed an autograph seeker who had a pin flag to sign, explaining that he was not feeling well. He drove about five kilometres to the hotel where many golfers were staying.
Koepka, the U.S. Open champion, did not give a second thought to the fleeting encounter until his girlfriend used the car later that day. Upon returning, she said a man had approached to ask if she would persuade Koepka to sign his pin flag. The man matched the description of the fan Koepka had encountered earlier.
The incident, which occurred this past week, before the Bridgestone Invitational here, unnerved Koepka. He wondered: How did the man know it was Koepka’s car, and what if the man had been carrying a knife or gun?
The threats facing the world’s best golfers were driven home at the British Open last month, when the rental home of the defending champion, Henrik Stenson, was burglarized while he was playing his first round. Someone broke a window in the backyard garden and made off with money, jewelry and much of his wardrobe. Stenson said this past week that the thief or thieves had not been caught, and that he was convinced he had been targeted.
In retrospect, he can see that he unwittingly left a trail of clues to where he was staying. He let Sky Sports film him walking into the rental house holding the Claret Jug.
He took a photograph with fans in front of the house, and he parked his courtesy car, with Open Championship markings on the side doors, in the driveway.
“I guess it was a bit of an eye-opener in terms of when we’re at some of these big events, we do make easy marks for criminals who are quite clever at what they do,” Stenson said.
It used to be that the worst crime that players feared was the theft of bags from the trunks of their cars. The arrival of the internet and the escalation of prize money have upped the ante. The players’ competitive schedules are widely circulated, and at any PGA Tour stop, it’s as easy to learn exactly what time the golfers are playing as it is know when the buses or trains are running.
After a round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Florida, in March, Jason Day said he received a call from his wife, Ellie, who had stayed at home in Ohio with the couple’s two young children. She told him that she had heard a prowler.
Day advised her to leave at once with the children, and he phoned a friend who is a police officer. The friend drove to the Days’ residence and, according to Day, found a man in dark clothes hiding in a tree on the property.
“Now if I’m gone, I have cops stay at the house,” said Day, who also plans to add a German shepherd to the family as a guard dog.
The PGA Tour employs a director of corporate security, Steve Olson, and has a group of consultants, many of them private investigators or retired FBI agents, who work closely with tournament officials to ensure the players’ safety.
The security team may keep a low profile, but its fingerprints are apparent in the new placement of the players’ parking lot here, near the first tee and protected by a makeshift barrier.
Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, said someone had once followed him from the Muirfield Village course outside Columbus to his rental house after a charity event. Through a series of evasive turns, Watson managed to lose the person tailing him.
“I never go the same route to my hotel or my house,” Watson said. “I always change it up.”
Rory McIlroy, who last played here in 2014, is staying at a different hotel this time. “The last couple of times I played here, autograph hunters checked into the same hotel,” he said.
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion and former world No. 1, breathed easier when he saw a police officer patrolling the lobby of the hotel where he is staying, he said. He is perhaps warier than most. Several years ago, he said, he enlisted the help of PGA Tour security when a stalker was pursuing him. Scott said the police presence “is quite comforting.”
Brooks Koepka watches his putt on the 13th hole during the Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament at Firestone Country Club on Thursday.