Why Watching Golf on TV Is Way Better Than Watching It Live

Notes on being at the U.S. Open in person

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Golf is the world's worst spectator sport. At a football, baseball, or basketball game, fans simply settle into their seats and watch the action unfold. At a golf tournament, like this past weekend's 112th U.S. Open, dozens of players roam over 18 holes for four days, and it's simply impossible to see more than a tiny fraction of what happens. Even that fraction demands preparation. And walking. Tons of it. It's ironic, but the most sedentary of the major spectator sports demands by far the most effort to see in person. Especially at this Open, in hilly San Francisco, at the even hillier Olympic Club.

Step one is planning. You've got to study a course map to know where the good stuff is happening, and how to get there fastest. You also have to decide what kind of experience interests you most.

You might like to watch putting. You could watch all you wanted strolling the Olympic Club's sharply tiered greens rolled and watered for days prior to the Open to make them faster. You can't see the players facial expressions like on TV, but who cares, really? Being able to kneel and read the break of the green just like the players do is infinitely cooler.

Or, for those who like to watch big hitters, there was the 16th hole. At 670 yards, the longest in Open history, so demanding the locals jokingly called it a Par 5 1/2. Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson didn't seem to like it, but hanging by the tee and watching pairing after pairing grip and rip was a blast, the whoosh of the shaft and smack of club face to ball infinitely more satisfying in person.

Golf maven and sportswriter John Feinstein suggests avoiding crowds around star players. "Pick a group who isn't famous to follow around the course. That's the way you actually get to see some golf."

That is, as opposed to following Tiger Woods. Thousands of people, along with five police officers, followed Woods around the course all weekend. Lesser known players several strokes ahead of him on the leader board, including eventual winner Webb Simpson, walked around virtually alone

Here are some other lessons I learned from my weekend at Olympic:

1. Be careful what you carry
The USGA and PGA have an extraordinarily long list of stuff that fans can't bring on the course—far beyond the usual bans on weapons and booze. You can't bring signs or national flags, for instance. At this Open, people weren't even allowed to carry cellphones without a special gold sticker, leaving tens of thousands of affluent, tech-savvy golf fans in the untenable and bizarrely pre-postmodern condition of being at a really cool event yet having absolutely no way to prove it on Facebook.

2. Goof off
Most big sporting events have fan-fest type midways, with play areas for the kids, concessions, merchandise stands, and corporate-sponsored promotional pavilions. For the first three, unusually clear, bright and warm days of the Open, the Olympic club midway was packed. Fans grabbed the single-use, single-band "CourseCast" radios given away by American Express. They stood in very long lines at the Lexus pavilion for the chance to win a car by hitting a virtual hole-in-one.

While you are goofing off, be sure to get that merchandise early. Oh, don't even act like you don't care. What's the point of attending a splashy event like a U.S. Open if you don't pony up for all kinds of overpriced clothing and doodads gear to wear back home and make your friends jealous? The Open's "merch tent" was really a warehouse—a ridiculously huge, well-lit, carpeted warehouse with plenty of mirrors and dressing rooms, it was practically luxurious. That is until Sunday night, after the last hole, when the place had been stripped to the bare shelves.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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