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OPINION: Time to Eliminate Montana High School Golf Spectator Ban 

Spectators — including family, friends and college coaches — are not allowed to watch Montana high school golfers compete. (Photo Credit: Montana Sports)

The problem has existed since the 1970s. But in the last couple of weeks, thanks to the magic of the internet, another ridiculous high school golf rule, this one out of Montana, has received the attention and scorn it deserves.

The rule is as simple as it is idiotic: no one can watch high school golf matches or tournaments in the state of Montana. No one. Not parents, grandparents, or relatives from out of state. Not local reporters who would like to give a shout-out to a kid on the 6:00 local news or a line or two in the paper. Not girlfriends, boyfriends, just friends or friends of friends. And not college coaches who might possibly want to recruit a kid to play at the next level. High school golf in Montana is played in front of zero spectators and has been for the last 40 years.

Why? According to Leslie Spalding, the women’s golf coach at San Diego State and one of only two major touring professionals to come out of the state, “There was one father who was just a bad golf parent, very disruptive. He was so bad that the state high school association overreacted and put this rule into effect. It’s been in place ever since.”

Surely not. Surely two generations of high school golfers have not missed the opportunity to play in front of their parents; been denied the opportunity to feel the pressure of standing over a putt with a crowd nearby; been robbed of the exhilaration of hearing claps and cheers, if only from a handful of people because one overzealous dad made a scene back when El Caminos and Sansabelts were still in style.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve always understood,” Spalding said.

Spalding and others have tried to change the rule. But like far too many high school associations, bureaucracy is a blunt instrument used to browbeat common sense.

Sign Petition to Repeal Montana High School Golf Spectator Ban

No matter how irrational a rule, school administrators almost universally bow up when pressured from the outside. In this case, officials at the Montana State High School Association (MSHA) have said that the spectator ban exists to preclude “improper coaching” and to protect public safety as someone might be struck by a wayward shot. No other state has such restrictions, although almost all high school associations have rules against parents interacting with players during competition. Similar rules exist in all national and international junior golf associations. Spectators may cheer, but they may not engage players in conversation beyond, “Great shot,” or “Would you like a Slim Jim?”

“It’s a real detriment to the kids,” Spalding said. “My parents used to get in the car and drive to surrounding neighborhoods so they could look through people’s yards and see me play…I was incredibly fortunate in that I was recruited (to the University of Alabama) based on a recommendation and on my scores. When I signed, the coach had never seen me hit a shot.”

Those days are long gone. As former PGA Champion Shaun Micheel wrote on Twitter about the rule, “Scores are only part of the bigger picture. Intangibles like attitude, etiquette and temperament. How does the player handle adversity? All of the extra things that are part of competing. Coaches aren’t able to evaluate those things by looking at just the final score.”

The reason Micheel and others discovered the Montana rule is because one parent, Chris Kelley, started an online petition. Kelley’s son is 11 and a long way from high school. But the imbecilic inequity of this rule – what other sport precludes parents from watching their kids compete? – was too much for him.

Tour pros, coaches, and parents from around the country signed the petition, which has received national attention in recent days. Stefan Schauffele, father of reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and Tour Championship winner Xander Schauffele, wrote an extensive diatribe where he called the rule, “an obvious obstacle to the development of potential talent.”

“It’s not just terrible from a potential recruiting standpoint, even though I know a lot of college coaches have signed the petition,” Spalding said. “The interaction between parent and player is vital to the development of the kids, not just as golfers but as people. Going through the round after the fact, talking about particular shots and what was going on in their minds, talking about their behavior on the course, their honesty: those are things that don’t happen in Montana because the parents can’t see the rounds. Scorecards don’t tell the story.”

Anyone who played high school sports knows what it meant to have your parents in the stands, on the sidelines, semi-hiding behind the hotdog stand beside left field, or hanging out between the bunker and the out of bounds stakes. No matter how old you get, those memories stay with you. Except for golfers in Montana, who can’t know what they’re missing, since it’s something they have never had.

On Tuesday, the MSHA meets again. Changing the rule is not on the agenda.

“We can only hope it’s discussed,” Spalding said. “Really, how could it not be?”


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