Why all the shushing? Let the fans roar

Against a magnificent background of views of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains worth billions of dollars and homes worth millions of dollars meanders the Castle Pines Golf Club. A few days ago most of the world's best golfers were here to play in the Sprint International.

And when each would prepare to hit a shot, there was dead silence. Marshals enforced the ban on the tiniest sound by holding their hands high and palms out in command. To defy the noise ban is to risk being banned.

Golf is an environment in which observers are told when to talk and when to remain silent. It's totally autocratic, anathema in a democratic society.

After all, in legal dealings, we have the right to remain silent; in golf, we have orders to do so.

Indeed, check all constitutional rights at the door when you enter golfdom.

Truth is we are under heavy pressure to hold our silence when we watch many sports, including golf, tennis, lawn bowling, chess, bowling, curling, gymnastics, figure skating, croquet. But we can go vocally nuts when we watch baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, wrestling.

What gives here?

What gives is we are following custom. Our behavior dates to a time when the likes of golf and tennis were country club sports, witnessed by the wealthy, who had been taught proper manners. They kept their mouths shut and applauded politely at the correct moments.

Baseball and football have always been sports of the masses, many of whom wouldn't know proper manners from broccoli. Their mouths are always at full throttle and they clap, cheer, whistle, boo, and ring cowbells whenever the spirit moves them.

Silence traditionally has been an unofficial line of demarcation between classes. For example, going to symphony concerts typically has been an activity of the upper class, which knows perfectly not to mistake the end of a movement and the ensuing silence for the end of the piece. Applauding comes at the end, not during. Increasingly these days, however, people in the audience will start clapping at the wrong time. It has the feel of chalk squeaking against the board.

Silence is giving way to noise. Time was libraries were havens for quiet. Now they're like playgrounds. Movies used to be a place for people to go and sit in silence. Now they are places for the boorish to chatter, oblivious to everyone else.

A fortnight ago at the PGA Championship in Medinah, Ill., fans repeatedly hollered out. They just didn't know the culture. To them, pro wrestling, hockey, and golf were all the same. Afterward, Tiger Woods talked with the media about fans: "The golfing public has changed. Now you are getting fans who are new to the game, who don't understand the traditions and etiquette."

Of course, the central reason people like this are showing up is because of, drum roll, Tiger Woods. He's new, young, different, exciting, and a far cry from the typical and stuffily decorous white male who has dominated golf for decades.

But aside from cultural differences, there is no justifiable reason why fans should have to be quiet watching golf, tennis, or any alleged "quiet sports."

Athletes succeed grandly when they concentrate totally. To hit a stationary white golf ball doesn't require silence. To hit a far larger tennis ball doesn't require silence. Only concentration. This is clearly true because when a baseball player is trying to hit a baseball, fans routinely are yelling. And the hitter doesn't know where the ball will be pitched, how it will be pitched, or how fast it will be pitched. Beyond all this, a baseball is always a screaming threat while golf balls and tennis balls never are.

A basketball player shooting a free throw from 15 feet routinely looks into a sea of fans gone bonkers, often waving all manner of items to distract him. Football is a game played in a hothouse of commotion.

Silence is a beautiful thing. It's an endangered species. That's sad.

But, in fairness, why does golf at the Sprint International require silence and baseball at Shea Stadium doesn't? Culture and custom. That's all. No other reason.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Or maybe it does.

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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