A Brief Guide to Spectating Live Golf

In the United States, devotion to professional sports is so deeply entrenched in the culture that when all sports leagues paused operations in early 2020 due to Coronavirus concerns, a chunk of the citizenry damn near lost their mind. When leagues gradually resumed competitive play a few months later, precautionary measures dictated that games would be held without fans in attendance, which created a lifeless television product; as it turns out, sports need fans as much as fans need sports. When lockdowns eventually wound down and the general public was allowed to attend games again, the reemergence of this communal experience triggered a number of wildly magnetic television moments.

50-year-old Phil Mickelson’s shocking 2021 PGA Championship win at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island unofficially marked the return of fans at live events.

In the United States, the most common sports to attend are football, basketball, baseball and hockey (with soccer in the mix as well.) Due to the popularity of these sports, it’s usually an easy sell to convince people to spend an evening at a game; even those who aren’t rabid sports fans know that at the very least they’ll have a designated seat, easy access to food and drink, and that all of the action will happen in one central location. The experience is not complicated, which is part of the appeal.

The rest of the charm comes from the unparalleled sense of camaraderie that’s generated when a crowd gathers for a common purpose. Simply put, giving yourself over to the ebbs and flows of a game alongside thousands is an experience that can vacillate wildly between sanity and madness, which is not often encountered in any other part of life. For all intents and purposes, sports are singular.

In fact, love for competition in the U.S. is so considerable that even the “secondary sports” maintain their fair share of popularity. While these events may not draw as many people in-person as the upper echelon do, the experience they offer is often looser and catered more toward the fan, which creates ideal circumstances for having fun and creating engaging memories. Perched at the top of this list is the sport of golf.

The game of golf dates back to 1400s Scotland, where the sport was so instantly beloved among the populace that the (Scottish) King James II felt the need to ban it because young men were neglecting their mandatory archery practice in favor of it. This decision was eventually reversed a few Kings later, when James IV took up the sport himself and fell in love with it. Though the structure of the game has taken twists and turns in the centuries since, its staying power is a reflection of the special hold it has over people worldwide.

Today, golf’s power comes the fact that it can be played at nearly any age, and can act as a leisure sport, a high-level competition of skill, and anything in between. Because of the sport’s ability to relate to all types of people, there’s a strong market for hosting professional events that are open to the public, and as a spectator sport, the game stands alone in its uniqueness; while out on the links, there are no assigned seats, food vendors are located through scent, a majority of the shots played by the competitors will go unseen, three out of every four rounds end without someone being crowned as winner, and sunscreen is highly encouraged.

In short, when attending a golf tournament, the burden for having a satisfying experience is on you, the fan.

To clarify: there’s no wrong way to watch golf. Everyone has their own ambition when enjoying sports, and far be it from me to lay down any opinions that resemble gatekeeping. The take home point here is that attending live golf is different from other sporting events because it’s a choose-your-own-ending adventure. You get out what you put in.

This might surprise those who’ve only ever seen golf on television – where the sport is easy to follow so long as you can stave off the mid-afternoon nap – but in practice, there’s no wider gap between the at-home and in-person experience than what golf represents.

Okay, so now that we’ve established that the majority of what follows is directed toward the type of observer who wants to stay actively engaged with the various storylines during the event, let’s talk about what kind of effort is required.

For starters, the average men’s professional golf tournament is played on courses that are more than 7,000 yards long (just shy of four miles.) This means that the experience can become as much of an athletic endeavor for you as it is for the players. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to handle this reality: just as golfers strategize with their caddies about how they’ll play a golf course before the round starts, so too can you, the eager spectator, come up with a plan beforehand about how you’ll attain your ideal experience.

Because play is spread out over an enormous footprint, there’s a distinct lack of jumbotrons and no announcers, which is notable because at other sporting events this is primarily how you stay informed as to what’s going on. Without constant context being presented, you put yourself at risk of passively drifting from one random golf shot to another, opening yourself up to boredom, which is akin to a death knell for the whole experience. To combat this, my advice is to not focus on replicating the television experience, and instead tailor a special day for yourself that can’t be had at home.

While you’re free to parade around the event in any way you prefer, there are plenty of tried-and-true methods for attending a golf tournament that can be taken as a template for your own ends. And given that any general admission ticket can morph into a court side seat with enough anticipation, it’s never a bad thing to be prepared.

With that throat clearing out of the way, here are five solid approaches to spectating golf on foot.

  1. Choose a specific hole, settle in, and watch groups as they pass through.

Pros: The strongest selling point for this plan is it’s designed to ward off the exhaustion that’s inherent with being on your feet all day. What’s more, most professional golf tournaments are designed to facilitate this exact approach, so there is usually bleacher seating at a few holes. Short of that, there’s nothing wrong with finding a grassy spot under a shady tree and plopping down.

While technically this strategy can be deployed on any hole, a fun place for it is at a par 3, where hole-in-ones are on the menu. Furthermore, because you can easily see every golfer’s shot, you and your companions can take a page out of Phil Mickelson’s book and wager over which player will card the lowest score in each group.

A final point in favor of anchoring yourself to one hole is there’s an easy to follow context that’s created when watching a wide variety of players hitting the same shots as one another — you become an expert on differentiating between the good shots, and the great ones.

Cons: Golf courses are enormous and usually filled with lots of interesting topography, so limiting yourself to one tiny corner of the layout puts a cap on how comprehensive your experience can be.

Also, it hardly needs to be said but watching the same shots get played again and again can eventually lose its luster. Plus, there’s a lot of down time between those shots, which doesn’t exactly make for enthralling viewing, especially in those moments when you hear the crowd roaring with excitement around the course.

This method also puts a ceiling on how invested you can become in any single golfer’s round, as each group is continuously being ushered to the next hole to make room for new people. What’s more, until the golfers who are leading the tournament pass through, you have no relation to what’s happening in the grand scheme of the event.

  • Follow the player who’s leading the tournament and watch them attempt to manage the pressure of expectation.

Pros: This plan is very simple, because it’s mostly in line with a normal television broadcast in that your focus is on the person most likely to win the event. Even people who don’t follow the sport closely can comprehend the fun of tracking the person who’s playing the best.

Generally speaking, everyone within the professional ranks are more or less physically capable of hitting the same shots as one another, which means that what truly separates players is how they handle the mental game. Obviously any golfer wants to hit as close to a perfect shot as possible every time they address the ball, but the real key to winning a tournament is minimizing the damage of bad shots when they inevitably occur. The fun of following the leader, then, is seeing them up close and monitoring how they handle the massive weight of expectation, particularly after a poor shot; you get to read their body language, watch how they communicate with their caddy, and absorb their overall vibe. Win or lose, to observe someone operating under immense pressure against the backdrop of high-level competition always makes for compelling viewing.

Cons: It’s not exactly a ground-breaking concept to follow the tournament leader around the golf course, so you should expect loads of other spectators to also congregate around their group, and in turn, you. Unfortunately, with a larger crowd comes limited viewing angles, which takes away from the fun of seeing things with your own eyes.

Additionally, if the leader starts to struggle and tumbles down the leaderboard, you’re left at a crossroads as to whether to stick with the group in the hopes the golfer recovers, or deviate from the plan. 

  • Proceed to the first tee box and commit to following a single group for the full 18 holes.

Pros: The primary appeal of this maneuver is that if you’ve never been to that specific golf course before, tailing a group around for their whole round is an ideal opportunity to study the full layout.

In addition to that, when your sole objective is to watch a group as they navigate the course, the stakes and storylines come ready-made; not only do you see every single shot of the round, but you get a better sense of who they are as people, which makes you more invested in the outcome.

(Having employed this strategy numerous times myself, I’ve come to learn the important and timeless lesson that sometimes a good day on the course features a lot of saving par.)

Cons: Obviously when you commit to this plan you’re signing up to do a lot of walking, and all that time spent on your feet can really add up. Wearing comfortable shoes and staying hydrated is a must.

Past that, if you have the unfortunate luck to attach yourself to a group where no one is playing well, the day can become a grind. If you choose to bail on the pairing but want to keep walking the full 18 holes, your best bet is to speed up and catch the group ahead, or slow down and pick up the group behind. 

  • Identify where the best and/or most famous golfers are on the course and bounce between their groups to see them with your own eyes.

Pros: It’s common practice for tournament organizers to group together the most popular golfers for the first two rounds, so locating a specific group on the course usually satisfies seeing multiple desired players at once.

Beyond that, who doesn’t enjoy an in-person opportunity to watch the best in the world execute their craft? If you’re lucky and happen to catch a great player on a day where they’re playing exceptionally well, there’s a palpable energy that accumulates and permeates the gallery following them, creating the necessary circumstances for a full-on spectacle.

Cons: It really goes without saying, but the most famous golfers tend to attract the greatest number of people following them, regardless of how well they’re playing. Willingly joining a swarm of people means submitting yourself to tight spaces and obstructed views for the entire day, which takes a lot of energy and heart to put up with.

Even if the plan is to cycle between a few groups throughout the day, this still requires foresight to know which players are where at any given moment, and when you factor in the predictably spotty cell service that frequently accompanies large sporting events, this can become a challenging task. If you’re going to attempt this strategy, the best way to prepare is by downloading a copy of the day’s groupings and tee times before arriving at the course for easy reference throughout the day.

  • Take a leisurely stroll around the course and enjoy whomever you come across.

Pros: Choosing this for your itinerary offers maximum flexibility, because the only goal is to be present and enjoy the sights and sounds of live golf. There is no shortage of things to do or see at a tournament, which means you’ve got lots of options for building a satisfying experience.

One specific possibility that comes with this type of open-minded approach is that even the best golfers occasionally hit wayward shots, meaning there’s always a chance that you’ll suddenly find yourself a few feet away from a golfer strategizing with his caddy over how to play a tricky shot.

Cons: Choosing this very relaxed approach can easily put the actual watching of golf in the backseat, which is sort of the antithesis of buying a ticket to the event. If you simply want to spend a day outdoors, perhaps save yourself the money and go to your local park.

Furthermore, when you drift around without a specific purpose you can burn yourself out faster than you would’ve otherwise because your brain becomes listless. Without any aim during your stay, you can easily find yourself leaving the event early.

In sum, this ^ list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor should you feel restricted to choosing only one approach for your day; the main objective is to have fun and make memories, and any path that achieves this is a success.

The reason I share this is simply because, in my opinion, when you create an itinerary for yourself in advance of an experience, you’re then freed up to deviate from it when the moment feels right. To me, this minor amount of forethought creates a best-of-both-worlds situation, while also eliminating the time waste that accompanies trying to make a plan while at the event itself.

Additional Notes on the Live Experience

  • Nearly every type of live sporting event encourages an atmosphere of noise, going so far as to inject loud music and rowdy diversions into every break in the action. Golf stands in direct opposition to this, and at any given moment the sport demands that spectators go silent and stock-still so as not to distract the players during their shots.
  • Part of the fun of live events is they typically engage all five of your senses, and golf arguably represents the best version of this by virtue of the fact that you’re walking around outdoors instead of sitting inside. As has previously been discussed though, this tends to wear you out faster, so pace yourself.
  • One unavoidable aspect of going to events in modern day is the rabid devotion by seemingly everyone to record as much of the experience as possible using their phones. While professional golf has relaxed its rules in recent years about allowing spectators to carry their phones around on the course, statistically* the average person absorbs 3.5 times less of what’s happening when they’re holding their device versus when they’re not. In addition to that, statistically** no one cares that much about anyone else’s event-going experience, so recording every moment only undercuts the outing.
  • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few pictures or videos to remember the event by, but when you stow your phone and allow the setting to imprint itself on you through how it feels to be there, that ends up lasting as long as photos, and it’s felt more in your heart and soul.

(*I made this up, but it seems about right.)

(**I made this up too, but I know it’s right.)

Next Steps

Spectating golf can be tremendous fun, and while there are many options for events to choose from, due to their circus-like nature of rolling into a new town every week, it can be difficult to catch one if you don’t know what to look for.

The PGA Tour is the organization that features the best golfers in the world taking on the most challenging courses in North America. For obvious reasons, this is top-notch entertainment, and the price point is in line with other premiere sports leagues – not cheap, but certainly not prohibitively expensive – and all tickets provide access to the entire 18 holes.

The LPGA Tour holds tournaments throughout North America for the best women’s golfers who, like the men, take on the most challenging courses. Due to the women not hitting the ball as far as the men though, they hold events on separate courses, which works out for the fans because there’s venue variety when each tour swings through a given area. Another selling point of the LPGA Tour is it features both a lower price point and overall smaller crowds, which makes for a more accessible and enjoyable outing.

The Korn Ferry Tour acts as a minor league system for the PGA tour, and it features swarms of hungry professionals trying to grind their way up to the top level of the sport. Though this wasn’t always the case, these days the Korn Ferry regularly develops the best golfers in the world, with Max Homa and Scottie Scheffler acting as recent shining examples. Though the average level of play can be somewhat unpredictable, the wide range of outcomes makes it all the more exciting to watch.

LIV Golf is the newest organization making waves in the sport. Funded by billions of dollars from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, the tour’s aim is to be the first truly global golf league. To that end, they’ve paid hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed contracts to some of the biggest names in the sport to get them to play for them exclusively. In terms of price point, the tour has featured multiple events where it’s released coupon codes to fans to give them free tickets to the event, and there’s nothing cheaper than that (regular pricing is in line with the PGA Tour.) The tour has also been choosing courses that other professional tours don’t play, helping them to stand out from the others.

The European Tour and Asian Tour are organizations hosting quality events in their corners of the globe. The world is filled with amazing golf courses and a strong professional class of player, and seeing events on these tours always brings value to the fan.

Finally, there are also numerous amateur tournaments going on year-round, which can be great fun. Because these events typically draw the fewest number of fans in the sport, not only are tickets extremely cheap, but it’s common for spectators to be able to walk in the fairways alongside the golfers and their caddies, which is the ultimate in-person experience.

In Closing

A day spent out in nature is never wasted. Go have yourself an adventure as a golf spectator, you won’t regret it!

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