Lynch: European Tour ‘security’ around Rory McIlroy was a joke, but no laughing matter

·4 min read

To the extent that we think at all about security issues at golf tournaments, it’s typically in the context of spectators being ejected—justifiably so in instances of unruly behavior, questionably so if it’s because a rabbit-eared player heard a comment he didn’t like.

Security is conspicuous at most PGA Tour events, whether local police departments or companies hired to manage crowds. There’s another layer of security that passes largely unnoticed. High-profile players are assigned a uniformed police officer who does not stray from his side throughout the day. The Tour’s own security personnel also moves between groups.

Compare those protocols to what we witnessed Friday at Scottish Open, when a fan strode onto the 10th tee, snatched a club from Rory McIlroy’s bag, then proceeded to waggle it around for a time as though preparing to hit a shot as McIlroy, Jon Rahm and their caddies stared in disbelief. Eventually an official (one well-stricken in years, based on the video) approached and ushered the trespasser aside. Then two laggardly security officers showed up and frogmarched the man away, making a game attempt at appearing to do a job they had manifestly failed at.

McIlroy was unfazed. “It was a surprise, yes, but it was handled efficiently and everything’s okay,” he said after his round. “I had no idea who he was. Again, it was handled quickly and that was the end of it.”

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But McIlroy pays others to be fazed for him, and we can assume his management team left the European Tour in no doubt what they thought of how the incident was handled. They won’t be alone in registering concern. Among other high-profile players and their managers, Friday’s Keystone Cops farce will have gone down about as well as a pint of cold vomit.

By its nature, golf allows fans closer to the action than most any other major sport. It’s the very charm of spectating. That proximity between athlete and admirer comes with an accepted amount of risk, of course, and we’re accustomed to occasional halfwitted horseplay. Like the tutu-clad chap who scampered onto a fairway in the final round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last month, or the streakers who periodically enliven the Open Championship by showing their shortcomings.

The meddler at the Scottish Open seemed more creepy than his counterpart at Torrey Pines, but since there wasn’t a direct physical threat to a player or caddie the episode provided plenty of amusement for social media scrollers. If the man involved was suffering mental health issues, there was empathy. If he was over-served, there was mockery. Whatever the underlying cause, he clearly has issues. But there won’t be many constituencies in the golf world who will find the humor in this.

Despite what a few keyboard warriors were hollering, the onus was not on a caddie or player to wrestle this fan to the ground and retrieve the golf club. Anyone who has dipped a toe into the Twitterverse can testify to the worrying number of people out there who are clearly unwell, consumed with grievances, rage and conspiracy theories. Prominent athletes regularly receive threats from that quarter, and McIlroy is no exception. That’s why players expect both tournament organizers and Tours to protect them to whatever extent is possible. Like, for example, preventing a disturbed man from having unfettered access to the tee to do whatever he pleases while competitors are waiting to play.

It’s possible the personnel hired for security duty at the Scottish Open had little or no experience working a golf tournament. It’s also possible their understanding of what is required of them was deficient. But neither of those excuses holds true for the European Tour, which was made to look amateurish at best, negligent at worst. If there was one group on the course who might have expected competent security, this was it: McIlroy, Rahm, Justin Thomas. That the European Tour failed to provide adequate protection even on their first hole early on a Friday morning betrays an approach so casual it would be laughable, if it wasn’t so troublesome.

This incident comes at a time when the R&A is stressing how players must adhere to government rules around COVID and remain in a bubble during next week’s Open Championship. That task won’t have been made easier by every player and caddie being rudely made aware that their “bubble” can be burst by a random fan.

It’s easy to overreact to the misadventures of one troubled fan a world away who inspired a day’s worth of viral videos on social media. After all, no one was hurt and he was eventually taken to the hospital for assistance. But the ease with which he was able to act on his impulses—and the delay before security intervened—should not go unremarked upon.

It’s all funny, until the day it’s not. Because if these things were just a laughing matter, no one would have ever heard of Günther Parche.