Advertisement

Valspar juices up fan experience at PGA tournament as players tire of rowdy crowds

At the Valspar Tournament at Innisbrook the Hooters Owl's Nest, a popular premium ticket at the 12th green, is joined by the Grape & Grain, a wine and spirits emporium near the 10th tee where fans can meet celebrity chef Ming Tsai. There will also be a climbing wall for kids and a food truck rally. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  Times (2015)
At the Valspar Tournament at Innisbrook the Hooters Owl's Nest, a popular premium ticket at the 12th green, is joined by the Grape & Grain, a wine and spirits emporium near the 10th tee where fans can meet celebrity chef Ming Tsai. There will also be a climbing wall for kids and a food truck rally. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD Times (2015)
Published Mar. 8, 2017

Golf tournaments have a long tradition of whispered commentary, a soft "golf clap" coming from the crowds after a great shot and a sense of decorum so avid fans won't disrupt the concentration of players.

But these days, players are starting to bristle at the shouted "I love you, man," or worse, heckling over a bad shot. Some blame the increased party atmosphere out in the gallery, where all the action is.

Golf tournaments including the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship held on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook starting today are responding to the public's desire for a more fan-friendly experience.

The Palm Harbor tournament is getting its first food truck rally this year, complete with celebrity chef Ming Tsai (winner of both Iron Chef and James Beard awards), a 50-ton sand sculpture, a concert by country star Toby Keith who sings odes to a Red Solo Cup, and a kids' play area with a rock-climbing wall.

While not exactly elegant entertainment, it is what the people like, tournament director Tracy West said.

Ticket sales have grown 10 percent every year in the four years since Valspar took over the tournament from previous sponsor Transitions and juiced up diversions, according to West. That led more than 105,000 people to descend on Innisbrook over six days in 2016.

There will likely be about 20,000 people on the course on its busiest day — the same number of people at a sold-out show in the Amalie Arena.

"Ever since the Tiger Woods era began, tournaments are more of a happening and we're getting a much broader fan base instead of just real avid golfers," West said.

It used to be just the Ryder Cup and the Phoenix Open were unique in the way they bring in record-setting crowds that pile into an actual stadium built on the rowdy 16th hole in Scottsdale, Ariz., or lead cheers for the American team at the Ryder Cup.

But then social gathering holes became more popular at other tournaments, giving rise to things like the 17th hole at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens that has added a sports pub, a wine garden and a huge hospitality area.

Just last week, some of the game's top players complained that the hole, part of the Bear Trap at the Honda Classic, had crossed the line from rowdy to unruly. That led Honda Classic organizers to beef up police presence at the 17th hole and eject troublesome spectators.

But top golfer Sergio Garcia, who was heckled over a short missed putt, told the Golf Channel that he didn't think security would solve the problem when a party atmosphere like that is created around a golf hole.

"It doesn't matter, because you can't control things if there's a lot of alcohol involved, even if you put 100 police officers there," Garcia is quoted as saying. "It's just very difficult when you have people who have probably been there five or six hours drinking. You can't control that. It's just too hard."

At the 2016 Valspar Championship, golfer Ian Poulter had a heckler removed. The spectator yelled at the Englishman, saying "You will not make the Ryder Cup team!" and "You will hit it in the water!" Poulter did indeed hit it in the water after the heckler's remarks, and in turn, asked for his removal.

Rowdy behavior will still get you booted, and fans are mindful of being quiet during play, keeping their cellphones silent, West said. Some golfers, however, are growing concerned that the party atmosphere is getting out of control at even the most stately country clubs.

"While we encourage respectful cheering at the appropriate times," West said of Valspar's crowd, "we also take precautions, such as hiring security to maintain the family-friendly atmosphere."

The players' complaints come at a time the sport of golf is fighting a trend. The number of golfers 18 to 34 has declined 30 percent over the last 20 years, according to the National Golf Foundation. Everything from TV ratings to golf-equipment sales also show a drop-off.

"Golf Could Stand to Chill a Little," said a headline in a 2015 report by the National Golf Foundation on how to engage millennials, 44 percent of whom think of the sport as elitist and exclusionary, according to NGF surveys.

Golf is an extremely traditional game, but the NGF report recommended stepping away from the traditional and formality to align with the mindset of millennials.

"Golf is a fun, social and experiential activity," the report recommended, "and the game should be conveyed as such."

At Valspar, the Hooters Owl's Nest, a popular premium ticket at the 12th green, this year is joined by the new Grape & Grain, a wine and spirits emporium near the 10th tee. That's where fans on Friday and Saturday can meet celebrity chef Ming Tsai, the host of the public television cooking show Simply Ming.

That's the kind of diversion, West said, "where you are getting the casual golf fan."

"This is someone who is just looking to do something fun outside and wondering what this golf tournament is it all about," West said. "We are definitely adding activities to a wide fan base."

Steve Bradley, the men's head golf coach at the University of South Florida, said he's glad to see the sport he loves doing more to reach out, "because for today's families with kids, golf is probably not on the forefront of their mind as a thing to do as family outing."

Bradley said the rowdy Ryder Cup is just plain fun, but you shouldn't expect that kind of looseness at all golf tournaments, including Valspar.

Unlike basketball and baseball where players regularly have to perform while fans are screaming at them, golf requires a level of concentration, Bradley says, where quiet should be preserved.

"In golf, every shot is magnified as you can see week to week on the PGA Tour," Bradley said. "They are playing for a lot of money, and if you are not expecting someone to yell in your back swing it can throw you."

Bradley noted that some of the players complaining about the hecklers at the Honda Classic were having a great time three weeks earlier in Scottsdale at the Phoenix Open.

"If you go into it knowing that's the way it is, you are prepared," Bradley said, "When you have certain venues that are different, your mindset is a little different."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.