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Justin Thomas case at Honda Classic raises player-fan issue again

Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly said Wednesday that additional Palm Beach Gardens police were in the area of the course Sunday where eventual winner Justin Thomas had a heckling fan ejected from PGA National Resort & Spa for what he considered at the time to be improper behavior.

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Thomas, 24 and a Jupiter resident, has since taken to Twitter to say he overreacted to the fan’s comments as he played the 16th hole, but the incident once again raises the issue of fan-player interactions at PGA Tour events this season, which is barely two months into the calendar year.

Kennerly said additional police were in the area because of concerns about the behavior of fans around the Bear Trap — holes Nos. 15-17 at PGA National — a favorite spot for fans to gather and watch players contend with one of the Tour’s most difficult three-hole stretches … and to party. Kennerly added that it is customary for the PGA Tour to have one or more security personnel following the lead group.

Kennerly said the Tour initiated a policy last year wherein fans are instructed on the back of every ticket sold that there is a “zero tolerance” policy for bad behavior and that fans who violate that policy are subject to arrest.

Asked if there is a procedure for when a player asks for a fan to be removed, tournament director Andrew George said, “It’s situation by situation. With the police presence right there, they were kind of hearing the same thing Justin was.”

Added Kennerly, “If a player requests a fan being thrown out, it’s up to the police. But I would imagine if a player asks for a fan to be removed, that fan is going to be removed. The behavior pretty much (either) has to be repeated, or in this case blatant.”

Kennerly stressed that fans in around the Bear Trap generally conducted themselves very well during the tournament.

Palm Beach Gardens police did not respond immediately Wednesday to a request for more information about the incident.

During his post-match press conference after winning on the first hole of a playoff with Luke List on Sunday evening, Thomas said he was hearing from a fan as he was approaching the 16th tee.

“I don’t know who he was talking to, but (it sounded) like it was me,” Thomas said. “He said something like, ‘I hope you hit it in the water, hit it in the water,’ something like that. I just kind of looked back there. Didn’t say anything.

“My ball is … in the middle of the fairway and he’s yelling for it to get in the bunker. I was like, OK, I’ve had enough. So I just turned around and asked who it was, and he didn’t want to say anything, now that I had actually acknowledged him. So he got to leave a couple holes early.”

Fans on social media felt it was Thomas whose actions were wrong, and on Monday he took to Twitter to explain himself.

“Getting a lot of comments on the fan incident yesterday,” he wrote. “Sorry to any and all offended by it. There was more said as we walked to the tee, wishing bad things on the course for myself or Luke. Then the ‘get in the bunker’ comment over and over again, I felt it was very understandable to have him escorted out.

“I never want to lose fans, or have people root against me. I just didn’t see a place for that particular person to be yelling at us things that weren’t necessary.

“I overreacted and should not have had him kicked out. I feel bad for it, but was more doing so because again I felt the stuff he was saying was completely unnecessary. I love all my fans and to hear that I’ve lost quite a few (because) of that isn’t fun. So I’m sorry to all.”

The Tour faced incidents involving fans behaving badly during two West Coast events this past month. At Torrey Pines a fan yelled “In the hole!” as Tiger Woods was drawing back his putter; Woods missed badly and scowled while other fans called for the fan’s ejection. And at Riviera the week before Honda, Thomas said, Rory McIlroy had a fan thrown out when he yelled something at Thomas.

“Just because you’re behind the ropes doesn’t mean you can … I don’t care how much I dislike somebody, I’m never going to wish that kind of stuff upon them,” Thomas said. “I felt it was inappropriate, so he had to go home.”

Kennerly said no Honda officials were involved in the decision to remove the fan Sunday.

“Decisions like that have to be made on the spot,” he said. “We give the police the latitude to do what they have to do.”

While social media is shining a brighter spotlight on such incidents, unruly fans are not new to golf. Going back to when Jack Nicklaus was battling the ever-popular Arnold Palmer in the ‘60s, fans were seen holding signs saying “Hit it here Jack” as they stood behind a bunker.

Greg Norman once went outside the ropes to confront a heckler, and more recently Sergio Garcia has been a frequent target of U.S. fans, particularly in his younger days when he was viewed as Woods’ foil.

The Ryder Cup has also been the scene of partisan fans cheering for the home team while berating opponents. George said he was at the Hazeltine (Minn.) matches in 2016 when, after several incidents the first day, officials went to each grandstand and cautioned fans that any outrageous behavior would be dealt with quickly and firmly.

“Simply put,” Kennerly said, “our customers need to have respect for the players. This is their livelihood, and the players need to be allowed to perform.

Added George, “99.1 percent of the fans are respectful. It’s just the .1 percent that aren’t.”

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