Death, stats and hats... addressing the key issues for the month ahead.
Bill Shankly famously said that football was more serious than life and death. But what about golf? Would you be willing to risk your life to watch it?
Golf fans being hit by wayward shots is not a new phenomenon. Players have handed signed gloves and apologies to bruised fans for decades. No one can be sure whether the recent spate of fan injuries – including Corine Remande losing an eye after being hit by a Brooks Koepka drive during the Ryder Cup – is just a tragic run of bad luck or a sign that such incidents are becoming more common and increasingly serious.
ARE THINGS GETTING WORSE?
Golf balls are traveling further and faster than ever. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour is now 296 yards, up 10 yards in the last decade. 61 players averaged 300 yards or more last season.
Driving accuracy is heading in the opposite direction. Players are hitting fewer fairways and missing by bigger margins. Tee shots that fail to find the fairway miss it by an average of 26’ 9”. At most courses, that brings spectators firmly into the landing zone, disregarding the fact that particularly wayward drives routinely miss the edge of the fairway by 20 yards or more.
Combine this with fans’ desire to get as close to the action as possible, and organisers keen to meet that desire to lure people away from the comfort of watching it on TV, and you end up with a scenario likely to breed fan injuries.
The average ball speed on the PGA Tour is 169 miles per hour. By the time a ball lands it is still traveling at over 50mph. Get hit by that and you know about it.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
“We take our responsibility for fan safety extremely seriously,” said European Tour CEO Keith Pelley after the Ryder Cup. “Millions of spectators attend and enjoy golf events each year. Incidents of this severity are extremely rare. Spectator safety is our paramount concern, and this will continue to be the case.”
The R&A plans to assess fans’ guidance following the Remande incident and carefully plan viewing areas for next year’s Open at Royal Portrush. “Putting spectators at potential risk is something that can happen when fairways are lined,” says R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers.
“There is only so much an organiser can do to minimise the risk of stray balls which are a rare, but well-known possibility when watching golf,” says Michael Hardacre, Head of Occupiers and Public Liability at Slater and Gordon.
COULD AN INJURED FAN SUE?
“There is responsibility on the part of the organisers,” says Corine Remande, who plans to sue Ryder Cup organisers.
“Organisers of sports tournaments owe a duty of care to spectators,” agrees Simon Boyes, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School. “That said, by attending any event, a spectator is taken to accept the risks which arise as a natural consequence. A six hit into the crowd at cricket, or a shot going wide at football and hitting a spectator, would ordinarily be considered as part and parcel of attending. Providing appropriate care has been given to the placement of spectators during a golf tournament – reducing the level of risk to the lowest which is pragmatically possible – it would likely be treated in the same way.”
Koepka and his fellow pros, meanwhile, are unlikely to find themselves hauled into court.
“A player could only be held liable where they acted with “reckless disregard” for the safety of spectators,” adds Boyes. “This is a high threshold and difficult to demonstrate.”
WHY PROS DON’T SHOUT FORE
The European Tour has previously sent memos to players telling them spectator injury incidents are rising and strongly recommending they shout fore, warning that failure to do so will result in disciplinary action. It hasn’t worked.
“On the European Tour, I’d say it’s about half-and-half between players that do and don’t shout fore,” says Denis Pugh. “I’d say only 10 per cent of PGA Tour players shout fore. The players know there is a benefit of having galleries as a ‘backstop’ to prevent overhit or mishit shots going further away from the target.”
There are suggestions that both tours are too afraid to upset their star players to ever dish out a penalty for not shouting, especially when some
‘I’d say only 10% of PGA Tour players shout fore. They know the gallery can act as a backstop for mishit shots.’
say that fans 300 yards away wouldn’t hear it anyway. A typical shout would be audible at 39 decibels by the time it’s carried 300 yards, roughly the equvalent of a humming fridge or a stream flowing by you. In the middle of a crowd of fans, there’s a chance you won’t hear that, but that chance is still higher than if there’s no shout at all.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
These incidents are tragic, but thankfully rare. Provided organisers, players, marshals and the fans themselves are doing their utmost to keep it that way, most golf fans will continue to accept the risk of attending a golf tournament and hope to leave with nothing more than good memories and, at worst, a signed glove.
But we may only be one spectator fatality away from wholesale changes. When a 13-year-old NHL fan was killed by a puck at game in 2002, nets were installed nationwide despite a report deeming the arenas safe and fans opposing nets that would obstruct views.
Hopefully that day never comes for golf. In the meantime, penalty shots for any player who hits a fan after failing to shout fore would end the silence immediately, not guaranteeing fan safety but at least giving them a chance to protect themselves. Marking out potential landing zones may have helped Remande – she says that spectators didn’t know players were trying to drive the green where she was hit – but may create complacency among fans in unmarked areas. Marshals should warn nearby fans if a ball is incoming, but it was just five seconds between Koepka’s shot and Remande being hit – a short time to communicate.
There is no perfect solution. Stand in a field where people are hitting projectiles in your general direction and there’s a chance you’ll get hit. We all take a risk every time we step onto a golf course, whether as player or fan. As Goethe said, “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.”
A quick apology and a signed glove is standard ‘compensation’ for hitting a fan with a wayward drive or approach.
Pointing is all well and good, but it needs to be accompanied by a shout.
A sight that is becoming too regular on golf’s top tours.