Golf’s dilemma: Bear Trap excitement is high, but is etiquette too low?

5:40 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 Local
Gallery cheers Rickie Fowler at the 16 green during the third round of the 2017 Honda Classic Saturday February 24, 2017 at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

When thousands of tipsy fans pack into the party pavilion of the popular Bear Trap at the Honda Classic, it’s nearly impossible to completely quiet them as the pros tackle one of the toughest stretches on the PGA Tour. 

The Herculean task has become more difficult as the hospitality venues around the 17th hole alone have grown from 10,000 square feet in 2007 to more than 80,000 square feet this year.

Golfers accept the murmuring — that’s to be expected when the booze is flowing and so many people are gathered in the confined space that offers optimal viewing of the 16th green and signature 17th tee. 

It’s the lone drunken jeer shouted from the crowd during a golfer’s back-swing that gets him bristling. After all, millions of dollars of prize money and 500 FedExCup points are at stake. And the Bear Trap holes — the 15th to the 17th — are among the most difficult on the PGA Tour. The 17th is particularly daunting — a 195-yard shot over water to a small green with sand traps on the left side.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sergio Garcia stops for a drink at the 17th tee of the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa during the 2017 Honda Classic. Garcia is among the pros who have complained that the Bear Trap has gotten too rowdy in the last few years after getting a tongue-lashing from fans. (Jim Coleman/The Palm Beach Post)

Sergio Garcia endured a tongue-lashing from fans at the Bear Trap last year, with one shouting, “Hope your marriage fails.” Garcia has since married golf reporter Angela Akins.

Garcia acknowledged heckling is hardly isolated to the Honda Classic.

“I love the tournament and I love the golf course,” he told Golf Channel in the locker room after the final round last year. “Unfortunately this happens a lot of weeks now in the United States. You have to deal with it the best way possible.”

Other pros were more critical of the surging crowds at the Bear Trap, which is branded as “one of the best party spots in professional golf.” In fact, the Bear Trap’s official sponsor is Gosling’s Rum, known for its Dark ‘n Stormy rum and ginger beer cocktail.

Billy Horschel vented on Twitter after a round last year on the 17th hole.

“I’m all 4 fans having a great time/memorable experience but I’m not pleased w/the scene around the 17th hole the last few yrs,” he tweeted.

Horschel complained to PGA Tour Chief of Operations Andy Pazder, according to the Golf Channel. He said he doesn’t want to see the 17th hole at the Honda emulate the notoriously boisterous 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a refrain he repeated after this year’s tournament at TPC Scottsdale.

“No tournament should copy 16,” Billy Horschel said, according to ESPN.

It’s a relatively short, 150-yard hole that presents few problems for the pros, so a little jocularity doesn’t matter as much. Elsewhere, he said, that “shouldn’t be replicated.”

Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who played with Tiger Woods at last week’s Genesis Open, said they were annoyed by some of the crowd’s outbursts not just at the Genesis Open, but at other PGA Tour venues.

“I guess it’s a part of it now, unfortunately,” Thomas told reporters after the third round. “I wish it wasn’t. I wish people didn’t think it was so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots and play.”

The Tiger factor: More fans will flock

Defending Honda champion Rickie Fowler, however, said he likes the atmosphere.

“Nothing gets louder or rowdier” than No. 16 at the Phoenix Open, Fowler said when asked about the Bear Trap.

The golfers ask fans to be respectful and understand that it’s a hard shot, Fowler said.

“They’re very close, especially at the 17th tee,” Fowler said. “I don’t mind the loud crowds. It’s fun to have that kind of energy and atmosphere.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
At a recent tournmanet, fans hold up a sign at the 15th hole, which is the first hole of the “Bear Trap.” (Allen Eyestone / Palm Beach Post)

Therein lies the conflict that Honda organizers face. Attendance swelled since Ken Kennerly and his management team took over in 2006, with a record-setting 203,815 spectators last year — and that was without Tiger Woods and his rock star following.

With Tiger in the field, attendance figures could be even higher, and with the alcohol flowing, there’s even more potential for loose lips.

Fun for fans at golf’s forefront

Before the Honda Classic landed in Palm Beach Gardens in 2003, it drew a lackluster number of fans as it bounced around courses in Broward County. The tournament moved from the Country Club at Mirasol to the more spectator-friendly PGA National Resort & Spa in 2007.

The 18th hole has its own allure, so Kennerly wanted to create an experience at 16 and 17, he said.

“It’s the nucleus of this golf tournament,” he said. “It’s a natural point to create a lot of entertainment, a lot of fun.”

The Bear Trap is 90,000 square feet, according to the tournament. Four hospitality venues at the nearby 10th green also accommodate people who want to experience the energy emanating from the 17th.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Crowds wait at the Bear Trap entrance hoping for a turn to go up as the day’s leaders make their way to the 17th green at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, February 27, 2016. (Daniel Owen / The Palm Beach Post)

“The emphasis on entertainment is paramount,” Kennerly said. “If we can grow our fan base, we can also grow the game of golf,” he said.

But what if entertainment comes at the expense of the golf talent?

The yelling is a “distraction” and “not what we want,” Thomas said told the media.

It’s not what Kennerly wants, either. Organizers ramped up the number of police and volunteer marshals around the Bear Trap between Friday and Saturday. He said people who shout from the stands while a golfer is hitting will be told to leave.

“They’re playing for their livelihood,” Kennerly said. “The crowd needs to be respectful. For the most part, they are.”