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PGA Tour weeding out rowdy spectators

Call it the PGA Tour's trouble with volume control.

As tournament crowds have grown in size over the past decade -- a sign of the sport's growing popularity -- a downside has sometimes emerged: the renegade fan who demands to be heard apart from the crowd.

It's been a long time since anyone was amused by a shout of "You da man!" as a player ripped into a drive. Yet every week there are opportunities for a fan to scream on somebody's downswing and cause a tournament-blowing flinch.

It happened to John Daly several years ago in a match play event against Fred Couples -- a yell at impact sent a ball out of bounds. But Daly is generally more understanding than most players. What if some jerk screamed as he stood over a 6-foot putt to win a major championship?

"Hey, you may jerk it and make it," Daly said. "He might yip you right in there."

Unfortunately, there really is no way to keep an isolated individual from disrupting a tournament. All the PGA Tour can do, and is doing more than ever, is to prominently post rules prohibiting cellphones and rowdy behavior and trying to convince fans the rules will be upheld.

Last year at the Phoenix Open, Chris DiMarco was putting out when a fan yelled, "Caddyshack" style, "Miss it, Noonan."

DiMarco knocked in the putt, then glared at a course marshal and demanded the fan be ejected (he was).

But DiMarco says the fan behavior situation has improved in the past year. Also, he said, the players are thickening their skins.

"I think the players are realizing that the more they fuel it, the more it's going to happen," said DiMarco. "It's kind of like when somebody in high school calls you that nickname you don't like. If you look like it's bothering you, he's never going to let up."

Some fans have been known to tape the tournament they were attending, then listen to themselves later.

"Everybody wants to get on TV, man," Daly said.

At this week's Players Championship, the PGA Tour's showcase event, the gallery enforcement will be extensive, particularly since the war has resulted in dramatically increased security.

Bob Combs, the PGA Tour's vice president for public relations and communications, agrees that while there's no sure way to keep fans from yelling at impact, progress is being made toward limiting such behavior. Hecklers, such as the one who called Davis Love III a "choker" at last year's Western Open, are being yanked out of the crowd now with more authority.

"What you can do is take steps in advance when you see that situation developing," Combs said, "and we're trying hard to do that. Where it is a factor, we're trying to deal with it early."

Obnoxious fans are perhaps the most bewildering offenders, but technology is a more frequent problem: ringing cellphones and clicking cameras.

Tiger Woods had two incidents with fans and their cameras last year. An early click cost Woods a chance of going bogey-free over 72 holes when he won the World Golf Championship in Ireland; and at the Skins Game, Woods flinched during his swing when a camera clicked behind him (his caddie, Steve Williams, took the camera from the offending fan and tossed it in a nearby pond).

Yet Combs feels cellphones are the biggest problem. Cellphones are prohibited from tournament courses, but there always seems to be a few fans who sneak them in. Marshals only become aware of their presence when they ring -- hopefully, not during someone's backswing.

Such concerns might seem laughable in other pro sports, where rowdy and rambunctious are preferred atmospheres for events. After all, Shaquille O'Neal has never blamed screaming fans for disrupting his concentration on the free-throw line.

But golf, steeped in its tradition as a polite "gentleman's game," has always emphasized silence to maximize player focus. As new fans flocked to golf, many weren't aware of the game's etiquette.

Alcohol has been blamed for many of the more notorious instances, and many tournaments now have imposed stricter limits on where and when fans can drink.

While TPC Sawgrass galleries, particularly at the 17th hole amphitheater, can be on the edge of chaos, it was nothing like last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island, where the crowds often resembled the notorious right-field sections at Yankee Stadium.

"Bethpage was out of control," said Paul Azinger. "It was horrible."

Although people such as 2001 Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange insist the problem is not being policed tightly enough, players sense a new confidence that sanity is winning out.

"It has been a little better," said Ernie Els, "and I think it's because of what's going on in the world."

Els, who had to withdraw this week with a wrist injury, will not greatly miss the Sawgrass galleries, which he likened to "a football crowd," saying, "They almost let too many people in there. . . . It gets quite wild."

Then again, said Els, who likes his beers and time in the sun when away from golf, "I'd probably be the same way."

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