SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Sergio Garcia was heading to the practice range yesterday morning at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, walking briskly past the fans who were standing behind a fence and clamoring for his autograph.
Garcia quietly declined and kept moving. After he disappeared from sight, one fan muttered that the young Spaniard was big-timing him. "He wins one [last week's Buick Classic] and he won't talk to you," the man said.
One thing you can count on at the 104th U.S. Open, which begins here today, is that the fans will talk - or worse - even if they're not being spoken to. Recent history says as much.
In each of the three previous Opens held on Long Island in the remarkably short span of 18 years - two at this staid and stuffy club and the other, in 2002, at Bethpage State Park's Black Course - fans have played an integral part.
It's not even a stretch to say some impacted the outcome of the tournament.
In 1986 at Shinnecock Hills, Greg Norman led the Open on Saturday when he got into a heated discussion on the 13th hole with a heckler who had yelled that Norman was choking. Norman challenged the man to a fight, then watched his game unravel. He wound up tied for 12th, the only major that year at which he didn't finish first or second.
When the Open returned in 1995, Norman's caddy heard some derisive remarks from a fan during the third round. With the help of Norman's coach, Butch Harmon, the man was removed by security. Norman kept his composure, and briefly his lead, but ended up losing the next day by a stroke to Corey Pavin.
Two years ago, it was Garcia's turn. Impatient with Garcia's incessant club waggle, fans counted the number of times he addressed the ball during the second round before one yelled out, "Hit it!" Garcia made an obscene gesture and spent the rest of the week as a target for many fans before finishing a distant fourth to Tiger Woods.
Asked Tuesday whether that kind of audience participation was helpful in helping him prepare this year, Garcia said, "Probably, that week gave me the experience of handling it a bit better than I was at the moment. So. yeah, I'd probably say it doesn't affect me as much as did. Now, I can block it out better."
Joe Petke, a sub shop owner from Bristol, Conn., who has attended each of the past three Opens held on Long Island, said New York golf fans have gotten a bit rowdier since 1986. In part, it's because of the carnival-like atmosphere that surrounds the sport when Woods plays. It's also because the success of the city's sports teams, particularly the Yankees.
"There's a lot more to be vocal about," Petke, wearing a Yankees hat, said of his brethren. "We're demanding."
And demonstrative. When Charles Howell III showed up at Bethpage wearing tight white pants with a black stripe running down each side, fans started chanting "prison pants" to the spindly-built Georgian.
As Charles Howell Jr. said yesterday of the reaction to his son's sartorial choice, "If you wear white pants with a black stripe, you'd better be real comfortable with it. If not, you'd better not go out there, because you're going to hear about it here."
Noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who is here working with several players, said that playing in an Open in New York is much like going to Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium for a basketball game.
"You go to the game saying, 'OK, what kind of silly things are the fans going to come up with?' " said Rotella. "As a team, you get prepared and it doesn't bother you. You just have to be prepared for it. I think, in general, the players have learned that they had better go along with it [at New York golf tournaments] and enjoy it and not start fighting the fans or attacking the fans."
Rotella is curious to see if the crowds here will be as supportive of Phil Mickelson as they were at Bethpage, now that one of golf's hard-luck players won his first major at this year's Masters.
Based on yesterday, when he was cheered loudly wherever he went and was even serenaded on the occasion of his 34th birthday, Mickelson will likely be the people's choice again this week.
"I thought the response in '02 was fun and flattering and exciting," said Mickelson, "I really enjoyed playing there. I expect it to be very similar this week."
Englishman Paul Casey, who played the first two rounds at this year's Masters with Woods, has a game plan for the fans going into his second Open and first tournament in the New York area.
"I think you to have a little bit of thick skin. You need to be mentally tough for the golf course, and you need to be mentally tough for the crowd," said Casey. "Some guys are very good at that and some guys - some Europeans that we know - have been affected by that.
"You just can't give them anything. You can't show them any weakness," said Casey. "You've just got to smile and carry on."
Casey agreed with the assessment that fans in New York for the U.S. Open are the antithesis of British Open fans. Except for those in England and Scotland who like to shed their clothes and streak across fairways, they are for the most part respectful and knowledgeable.
New York golf fans think they are knowledgeable and are clearly not respectful.
They can turn even staid and stuffy Shinnecock Hills into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.
Selected tee times
7:30 a.m. Davis Love III
7:40 a.m. Sergio Garcia
8 a.m. Tiger Woods
8:20 a.m. Ernie Els
12:30 p.m. Fred Funk
12:40 p.m. Padraig Harrington
1 p.m. Phil Mickelson
1:10 p.m. Vijay Singh
Complete tee times, Page 9c