(Editor’s note: The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association also only allows spectators in designated areas)
(This is Part One of a two-part series. Click here to watch Part Two)
BOZEMAN – For a long time, spectators have been barred from watching high school golf in Montana because of a single line in the Montana State High School Association rulebook.
It reads: “No spectators/fans are allowed on the course except for certain locations as designated by the tournament manager and club professional.”
So what are these designated areas? Sometimes spectators are allowed on the first tee box and the 18th green. But in many tournaments around the Treasure State they don’t exist.
“The understanding is they don’t allow any spectators on the course. They just don’t allow any spectators out on the course,” said Belgrade athletic director Rick Phillips.
In the U.S., Montana and New Jersey are the only states that don’t not allow spectators on the course at high school golf matches. The only other state joining in with them? Alaska, because it does not offer golf as a high school sport.
There are a few courses in the Montana circuit that do have larger designated areas, like Meadow Lark Country Club in Great Falls, where spectators were moved into the center of the course and could see six or seven holes, and Old Works in Anaconda, where spectators can make their way up the slag pile and see virtually every hole. But courses in Montana are limited, and not all offer this luxury.
Out of the 49 golf states, why is Montana the only one that does not allow spectators? It comes down to a few factors: mainly that golf courses and tournament managers are involved in opening those spaces, not the MSHA. Other factors include parents being unruly, disrupting play, spectator safety, and illegally coaching players on the course. While many other states’ rulebooks encourage positive reinforcement on the course by spectators toward golfers, in Montana it’s a different story.
“I mean, it’s crazy but even you say, ‘Hey, get your head up’ or ‘Nice shot,’ that can be construed as coaching. It can be construed as contact,” said Phillips. “I don’t necessarily see that, but that can be seen as coaching.”
But many parents believe this rule singles out golf.
“If you tell a parent that they can’t watch their kid play in the Thanksgiving Day football game, they would riot,” said Chris Kelley, a parent whose son plays golf.
“I can go to a softball game and I can sit right behind the pitcher, I can make hand signals,” said Montana State head golf coach Brittany Basye. “I can yell out names. I can do the same thing on a softball field that might affect that kid. Football games we can yell as loud as we want when someone is making a pass or a catch.”
But the Montana High School Association member schools believe it is easier to keep those spectators in check and out of harm’s way because other sports are played in smaller venues, but golf courses are thousands of yards long and present a different challenge.
“From an administrative standpoint, it would be a challenge to hire additional marshals to be able to manage the huge area that goes along with a golf course,” said Brian Michelotti, an assistant director of the Montana High School Association.
It goes without saying that there are unruly parents at every event, and golf is not the only sport that has trouble getting staffing and keeping their spectators in check. But the real estate a golf course takes up compared to a football field makes it that much more challenging to police.
But James Greenbaum, who has been a lawyer for more than 30 years in Montana and New York, says that is no excuse for the MHSA members schools to vote no on repealing this rule.
“The highest court has stated many times that difficulty of enforcement is no excuse for trampling on civil rights,” said Greenbaum. “They are discriminating against children and parents in an outrageous manner in violation of the federal and state constitution. That is a fundamental right, for their parent to bond with their child and encourage them in something as innocent as a sporting event. … How could you deny a parent that right?”
An important aspect of this rule is that in order for it to be changed, voting members of the MHSA — in other words, the public schools — would have to vote for it. They would need to work in conjunction with golf courses around the state to come to an arrangement.
A repeal of the rule was brought up at the athletic director meeting over the summer, but it was struck down yet again. In an email sent by Livingston athletic director Regina Wood, she said that it received “virtually no support.”
Multiple coaches and athletic directors who opposed this rule declined to comment on their stance.
So for now, spectators are still barred from most courses. But they don’t need the constitution, they only want one thing.
“We don’t care about the politics,” said Kelley. “We just want to watch our kids.”
Kelley started a petition because of the rule on Change.org, which has now accrued more than 500 signatures.