KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – There’s a new sheriff in town at the PGA Championship. He’s wearing a lime green bib and shorts, roaming the fairways with an earpiece, scanning for trouble. He is a member of the “Mobile Device Policy Enforcement” crew, with a huge white label on his back announcing his role.
His message is clear: photograph at your peril.
As anyone who watched all the camera flashes pop all over Olympic Stadium Thursday as Usain Bolt ran to gold in the 200 meter final, cell phones are a part of the sporting experience now. From Instagram to Facebook to Twitter to regular old text messaging, you can’t fully enjoy a game or event without sharing your experiences. But in golf, sharing your experiences can lead to other, less enjoyable experiences, like getting screamed at by caddie Stevie Williams or getting your cell phone confiscated. Golf just isn’t like other sports, where noise is a good thing.
The latest solution – at least the PGA hopes it’s a solution – is a dedicated “committee” in place this week for the first time at the PGA Championship. If you’re spotted using your cell phone, you are given a warning by the volunteer army of course patrollers. A friendly agent will write a “W” on the back of your ticket. If you are caught a second time, your device is taken away and held until you leave. It’s a way to discourage phone use without riling up fans, who tend to flip out when they lose their phones for any length of time.
“I got a W,” lamented Tyler Keane, 21, as he followed Tiger Woods for the back nine Friday. Keane, a senior at South Carolina, snapped a shot of Woods and then felt a tap on his shoulder. “I gotta give you a W,” the patrolman told him. The volunteer then wrote the scarlet (actually black) letter on the back of Keane’s ticket.
“He got me,” Keane said afterward. “I know the rules, but come on. For that, I should get a picture with Tiger.”
There were a few informal groups monitoring last year’s PGA Championship in Atlanta, but championship director Brett Sterba and others decided to make this year’s group bigger and more official. Hence the bibs, worn by 16 to 20 teams of two and three. One of the volunteers, a man named James, said he walked this morning with Phil Mickelson’s group and gave out 12 Ws but took no phones. The afternoon found him with Tiger Woods, and much busier as he wrote "hundreds" of Ws. “It’s rude,” he said of the amateur photographers.
But the monitors are not rude. Sterba emphasizes being casual and polite with the Ws. Most have been lenient and understanding, which stands in contrast to some of the more confrontational officials at other tournaments. But that brings us to another issue with cell phone policy: How is anyone going to remember the rules, and how are the rules going to be enforced?
When asked about the policy Friday afternoon, one monitor said phone use is OK but photos are not. Technically, that’s not true. Phones must only be used in a specified “phone zone” on the course. The PGA has a cool new app for fans on the course to follow all the action, with maps, leaderboards, and great information. But if a fan pulls out his phone to consult the app, well, that’s not allowed. He or she must find a “phone zone” on the course to look at the app. Of course he or she can’t consult his or her phone to find the phone zone. And by the time he or she gets to the phone zone, the app is less useful.
The PGA has decided to use the spectator bus, which takes fans from the public parking lot to the course, for a quick primer in phone policy. There’s a video presentation welcoming fans to the premises and cheerfully explaining the policy. The problem there is fans on the spectator bus are not gazing up at the video presentation, but rather looking at their phones.
So you have a volunteer army that has to use its discretion when issuing a warning or taking a phone, and you have an army of fans that has to learn the rules and follow them. Then, at the next tournament, the rules are different. The Masters has a set of rules – no phones at all on the course – and the USGA has its own rules. This year at the Olympic Club, phones were not allowed anywhere on the property.
To its credit, the PGA Championship is still allowing phones. Sterba feels his team and their rules provide a happy medium. “We didn’t have any problems last year,” he said. “I have not heard or seen any comments from players this year. I would say it’s working.”
Eventually, technology is going to win. Technology always wins. And it should win. For all the money and time fans spent on a day at the course – some fans spent four hours driving 40 miles from Charleston and its suburbs Friday – cell phone use should be allowed if it’s silent and non-intrusive. Otherwise, how are fans going to find each other after the round and stay in touch people back home? More likely than not, the next time the PGA Championship comes to South Carolina, there will be phones everywhere (assuming phones still exist). Players will have to deal with that. But for now, the “Mobile Device Policy Enforcement” patrol is on the lookout.
The good news is: if you see a cell phone scofflaw on the course this weekend, you don’t have to call the cops. Not that you’re allowed to anyway.
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