It was an indelible scene that further seared the historic significance of nearly 51-year-old Phil Mickelson winning his sixth career major at the PGA Championship. Thousands of delirious fans poured onto the 18th fairway at Kiawah’s Ocean Course and engulfed the players still competing. The PGA of America later felt compelled to apologize to the lapse in security.
In the immediate wake of all that commotion, Mickelson was able to ascribe the perfect words to the scene just moments after sealing his victory.
“Slightly unnerving, but exceptionally awesome, so thank you,” Mickelson told the crowd still teaming around the 18th green.
The slightly unnerving but exceptionally awesome practice of storming the fairways or pitches or courts at the conclusion of major sporting achievements has long been a tradition. But a more complicated world doesn’t share the same simple tastes of a mass of people flooding playing fields and the competitors in a rush to tear down goalposts or simply crowd together in spontaneous celebration.
It is an understandable loss that makes the modern rarity of spontaneous gallery murmuration such as Mickelson’s moment at Kiawah or Tiger Woods’ comeback triumph in 2018 at East Lake stand out.
These things once did not stand out in golf, however. The storming of the fairways was a venerable tradition – especially at the British Open.
“If you look back to the Bobby Jones era, it would seem that this is when the number of spectators grew considerably and when it came to the last hole, they all wanted to see him accept the Claret Jug, hence the gathering ’round the 18th green.” – Sir Michael Bonallack
The origin story for golf fans on the 18th fairway at Open Championships is fairly organic. There were no gallery ropes, nor need for them, in the earliest days. Fans simply walked along the fairways with the competitors and watched whatever from just about wherever they liked.
It wasn’t really much of a hullabaloo until Bobby Jones came along. Suddenly, golf had a marquee attraction who drew crowds like moths to a lamp. “If you look back to the Bobby Jones era, it would seem that this is when the number of spectators grew considerably and when it came to the last hole, they all wanted to see him accept the Claret Jug, hence the gathering ’round the 18th green,” says Sir Michael Bonallack, a five-time British Amateur champion and former secretary and captain of the R&A.
Bonallack believes what became the custom of Open fans rushing the finishing fairway blossomed when the R&A started sending out the leaders last in the final round “when the almost certain winner was in the last group playing the 18th hole.”
“My first notable recall of this was in the 1969 Open, when Tony Jacklin won,” Bonallack said of the championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “At that time, they had chestnut paling fences along the fairways – which were a nightmare if you put your ball outside them and had to get over them to play it – and so it was really only on the 18th the gallery had the chance to get inside.
“After Tony hit his wonderful second to the 18th, he was totally engulfed by hundreds of spectators wanting to get to the green. I remember it took some effort by helmeted police to force a way through for him and his fellow competitor.”
When Jacklin emerged from the crowd, he was carrying a shoe in his hand and walked a few paces clear with a stockinged left foot before stopping to put his shoe back on.
“Jacklin, mobbed by the crowd, lost his shoe in the excitement,” said the announcer on the highlight film. “A new British sporting hero had been born. Striding down the fairway, the modest 25-year-old was truly overwhelmed by the gallery’s adulation.”
Sir Michael’s other particular memory came at the end of the 1983 Open at Royal Birkdale, where Tom Watson won his fifth Claret Jug. Bonallack had just been appointed to take over from Keith Mackenzie as R&A secretary in September and was there to understudy him and learn about the running of the championship.
“I remember Keith was very proud of a prefabricated platform, which was hidden under the stands on the left of the green and was to be brought out for the prize giving, so the winner and official party were raised up and the spectators got a better view,” Bonallack recalls.
“This was fine in theory, but unfortunately as soon as Tom Watson hit his magnificent 2-iron to the green, the crowd erupted on to the fairway running past Tom to get to the front of the green, which was the place earmarked for the platform and prize giving.”
As venerable Scottish poet Robert Burns would say, the best laid schemes of mice and R&A men gang aft agley.
“After Tom eventually was escorted through and holed the winning putt, the platform party managed to produce the platform and assemble it as planned,” Bonallack said. “However, the spectators thought this was wonderful and completely took it over to get a better view. The plans for the presentation then had to change and revert to gathering on the bank behind the green.
“At the time Keith was not amused, but at the press conference the following morning, when he was asked what was the thinking about the platform, he replied that it served its planned purpose of allowing many spectators to stand on it to see the prize presentation.
“After that we decided to have a marshaled barrier with ropes right across the 18th fairway and which allowed the spectators to follow in a controlled manner to a position some 30 yards from the green.”
This practice for more controlled mayhem held up fairly well until the R&A finally decided to banish the tradition in the last decade, citing the safety and protection of the players finishing the major championship.
But as the breakdown in security at Kiawah showed, it’s not easy to marshal the unbridled spirit of fans when something historic is happening in front of their eyes. That was similarly the case in 2019 at Royal Portrush when Ireland’s own Shane Lowry was making his victory walk to the Claret Jug and had to hustle to remain in front of Irish fans who had broken through to fill the fairway.
“You know, when you look at those scenes I think it’s incredible,” said Lowry, remarking on the fans at Kiawah (where he finished T4) and reflecting on his own signature moment. “The pictures I have at home and the pictures my mum has up in the house of me walking down the 18th green with the Irish people behind me, it’s just incredible to have scenes like that.
“So Phil, to watch that on Sunday was – look, I was sitting in the clubhouse hoping he was going to make a few bogeys on the back nine – but to watch him walking down the 18th with all those crowds, it was just incredible, and it was a proper major feel.”
What a moment! What a memory for @ShaneLowryGolf!
He's the Champion Golfer of the Year! #TheOpen pic.twitter.com/SyP9bjwm3c
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) July 21, 2019
Current R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers is sympathetic to “the scene” created for the images and posterity while also being cognizant of the issues such scenes present. He insists – especially with COVID restrictions still reigning in England – that “the 18th fairway will be clean” at Royal St. George’s.
“Yeah, it was quite amazing, wasn’t it?” Slumbers said of the storming at Kiawah. “It was a bit like watching Tiger (Woods) when he won at East Lake three years ago.
“I’m old enough to remember when (Nick) Faldo came up the 18th here in St. Andrews (in 1990) and the police had to literally drag him from the middle of the crowd. I’m not sure we want to do that. It was OK given the situation he was in, but if it’s still to be decided on the 18th green, that’s probably not the right balance to have. But it was exciting to watch.
“The whole thing is a balance to getting the excitement but making sure the players are safe. … We, for The Open, will absolutely be holding back behind the barriers that we have and let the players have the freedom to move and play the final hole. It’s very important for us, especially as we might have to use it straight after if there’s a playoff. So we’re very conscious about keeping that space safe and clear.”
You can’t argue against safety, especially with the concerns Brooks Koepka shared about his recent surgically repaired knee getting jostled in the commotion playing with Mickelson at Kiawah: “It’s cool for Phil, but getting dinged a few times isn’t exactly my idea of fun.”
Yet, still, something glorious gets lost in the process.
“From a players’ standpoint, they may get a little scared, but actually it’s a nice experience to see people so enthusiastic that they love it.” – Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus can attest.
“I got run over at the British Open every year – I mean, when I won the British Open at St. Andrews in ’70 and in ’78 we got run over,” said Nicklaus, also noting the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in 1980 when “we had to fight our way through that a little bit.”
“From a players’ standpoint, they may get a little scared, but actually it’s a nice experience to see people so enthusiastic that they love it,” Nicklaus offered when the subject of Mickelson’s finish at Kiawah was brought up last month. “I mean, is there going to be some idiot that’s going to do something stupid? Probably will be. But for the most part … 99.9 percent of those people are excited to be there, thrilled to be able to get out on the fairway, thrilled to be able to sit, stand next to Phil playing the last hole.”
Nicklaus somewhat laments the loss of these memorable moments, but he understands the rationale for curtailing them.
“I don’t think it’s something that should be alarming. Or something you should do much about. I think that at the British Open and a few odd tournaments it’s been a tradition,” he said.
“I think it’s fan friendly and I think it’s getting the guys – (fans) relate more to the player and … they remember that the rest of their lives. So I don’t have a big objection to that. I understand the tour’s position on that, because you are trying to protect the guys. I understand that. I don’t have a problem with that.”
For Mickelson, if it never happens (or is allowed to happen) again, he’ll always have Kiawah.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that, so thank you for that,” he said, reiterating the unnerving-but-awesome aspect of it. “So that was kind of a special moment that I’ll be appreciative of the way that people here supported me and the entire tournament.”
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