---“Oh, you should see the Coliseum, Spaniard. 50,000 Romans watching every movement of your sword, willing you to make that killer blow. The silence before you strike, and the noise afterwards, it rises up like storm, as if you were the Thunder God himself.” -Proximo ---
Proximo was speaking to Russell Crowe’s iconic character Maximus in the Ridley Scott epic "Gladiator," but they might has well have been talking about the PGA Tour. Reread that quote and then consider it played over Tiger’s closing putt in the gloaming at Torrey Pines in 2008 that propelled him to his third U.S. Open title.
Or perhaps pull up the ’86 Masters on YouTube and watch Jack Nicklaus’s tee shot on 16 during the final round.
The fans were so loud, you’d have thought Foo Fighters just took the stage at Fenway Park.
Rest assured: Everyone on the PGA Tour wants that energy back.
“I actually miss playing in front of fans because you obviously work off that, especially in a major championship. You work off that energy,” first round co-leader Jason Day admitted candidly. “Usually it's buzzing from Monday all the way through to Sunday….There's a big buzz going around the golf course. And today…it's not the same. I know that we are playing the PGA Championship. It's a major championship. It's the first one of the year. It's still just not the same.”
The roars make the tournament just as exciting for the fans as the players. Imagine sitting in the stands on Sunday s a tight battle develops down the stretch. Then suddenly, off from afar, an ecstatic jubilation randomly erupts. Now the anticipation grows. "What happened?! What happened?!"
Suddenly the scoreboard changes.
“JACK BIRDIED 17!!! JACK BIRDIED 17!!!! HE’S IN THE LEAD!!!”
Meanwhile, if you’re a player coming down the stretch in a tight battle for a major, and you suddenly hear a volcanic eruption from afar, your swing might just become a bit more unsteady. No less a personage than Tom Weiskopf, 1973 Open champion, 16-time PGA Tour winner and CBS commentator for the 1986 Masters admitted as such.
“[In ‘86] when you heard the enormous roars down on 15 and 16, you knew who was playing there. Even three holes away, you knew,” Weiskopf told me succinctly years ago. “All that build up continued throughout the back nine. By then everybody was rooting for Jack and that’s what made the other guys falter.”
Eight-time major winner Tom Watson echoed those sentiments.
“Now there was one kind of roar at Augusta that was unlike any other, and that was an Arnold Palmer roar,” added Watson in the same interview. “When Arnie was making a charge at Augusta, you could hear it all over the golf course, and you knew exactly what it was, because nobody could generate that much love from the gallery. An Arnie roar was different from all the other roars, only this time it was Jack. Those roars were the loud and sustained.”
That’s part of the fun – deciphering the different kinds of roars. There’s the birdie roar, the chip-in roar, the eagle roar, the hole-out-from-the-fairway roar, the charging-superstar roar, the hole-in-one roar and the charging-Hall-of-Famer roar -- each one louder and more sustained than the last. I rank the hole-in-one roar above the charging-superstar roar, because charging-superstar roars happen all the time. That’s what’s supposed to happen, on Sunday especially.
The hole-in-one, on the other hand, is the Holy Grail. You get a cheer that starts optimistic, rises in confident, then swells, then torques itself with anticipation because it could…and then it does.
I was walking past the 17th hole of Whistling Straits during the second round’s play in the 2010 PGA Championship with a girl I was dating when that unmistakable roar rose up.
I turned to Julie and said, “I bet you that’s a hole-in-one.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked.
I said, “That’s a par 3, and they’re still yelling that loudly.”
We later found out it was Minnesota native Tom Lehman, who the Wisconsinites were more than happy to adopt as their own for the occasion. There were similar roars four times in a mere two-hour span on the same hole the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill.
And, of course, there were and still are Tiger roars. They stand head and shoulders above everyone else around even now, 10 years removed from his zenith.
You would think Woods would be among those missing the crowds the most, as he is their polestar. Instead he took a pragmatic approach to the change.
“You're not going to have as many distractions out there, as well; there's really no one moving around. You don't hear the crowd noises,” Woods explained honestly.
It makes sense he would notice that the most. His galleries dwarf the rest of the field, sometimes lined up 10-12 deep, following him every step of the 18 holes, almost smothering each other (and his opponents) at times. It makes sense he’d find it a bit of a relief as well.
“It's just different," Woods said. "That's probably the only way to say it; this is what we're going to have to get used to in the near future and for probably for awhile.”
Translation: We all lose.
“Obviously you miss that positivity, that energy, especially if you get on such a nice run that I was on, birdie 1, birdie 3, eagle 4,” said Martin Kaymer, whose 4-under 66 had him one behind co-leaders Jason Day and Brendon Todd. “So you were waiting for the energy, but you need to create it somehow yourself….it's definitely a very awkward situation that we're not used to.”
Awkward only begins to describe it. I’ve been to the empty Coliseum. I’ve walked the floor of the amphitheater, where once there was such passion and fervor. You can close your eyes and try to imagine the stands full of those 50,000 ancient Romans about which Proximo was telling Maximus. But you reopen them only to silence and disappointment and a lingering sadness at what once was.
That’s the overwhelming feeling watching an empty, silent Harding Park. It’s a lost city, forsaken and forlorn. We now know for certain that if a tree falls in the woods, and no one sees it, it doesn’t make a sound, even with a TV camera there broadcasting.
We’ve known it since the time of the ancient Romans. We need the fans. They are the lifeblood, the beating heart. Are we hiding in fear? Have we flattened the curve? No one in golf is certain, but what we are all certain of is that, to paraphrase Maximus, Deane Beman had a dream that was golf, Proximo. This is not it. This is NOT it.