How Golf Courses, Broadcasters Are Managing the Sport’s New Noisiness

Golf is getting noisier. The last bastion of physical sports (not counting chess) where silent decorum is expected to be broken only by a smattering of polite applause has lately experienced rising raucousness. Even that other venue of correctness, the New York Times, has observed the change in televised golf’s demeanor, noting that crowds shout out bizarre non sequiturs, like “mashed potatoes,” at increasingly inopportune moments.

Nowhere has this become more evident than at the 16th hole of the Stadium Course at the TPC Scottsdale golf course in Arizona, home since 1987 to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Understandably dubbed “the loudest hole in golf” — its amphitheater-style seats are packed with crowds of exuberant fans and spectators who cheer and jeer loudly as the pros play through — the16th hole has become circus-like, heavily bannered by corporate sponsors in support of major charities with cocktails flowing freely during big tournaments, leading to progressively greater rowdiness as the day goes on.

The 16th hole is also the flagship of a movement that has spread to other courses and tournaments, including the PGA Championship in April at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, NY, and, if TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole is the quintessential “party hole,” it may also be showing those other courses how to manage the noise. David Eriksson, CEO of Phoenix-based Church Technologies, is a volunteer with the Phoenix Thunderbirds, a local civic organization that has supported the Open throughout its history, raising millions of dollars for Phoenix-area charities. Eriksson, who has lent his audio skills to the event for a dozen years, explains the challenges behind the 16th hole.

“It’s always been a bit of a crazy event, and, by the time the players get through to hole 16, they’re nearing the end of their game, and things are loosening up,” he observes. “But it’s still a regulation game, and the PGA has some pretty stringent regulations regarding noise. The challenge is to find just the right balance of being heard over the crowd without overpowering the game.”

Eriksson’s mission has been to find ways to balance the sound, allowing announcements to be made and heard as part of controlling the crowd’s noise. This year, he brought in four separate sound systems to cover the 16th hole, each comprising three Prosonus StudioLive 328AI self-powered loudspeakers and a StudioLive 18sAI subwoofer, to cover the bar and crowd areas. It worked so well that, for next year, he’s contemplating plans to string 50 speakers across the course at strategic holes, expecting the trend of more-vocal crowds to continue.

The Times seemed to blame the more vociferous vox populi on Tiger Woods, asserting that “Woods changed the composition of golf galleries from reverential audiences to rowdy converts” by bringing a kind of rock-star aura into what had been a staid, homogenized atmosphere. Golf, however, may have been more ready than it thought for some more-vocal fan involvement. The sport’s popularity has been slipping in recent years, to the point where it’s losing an average of 100 golf courses a year in the U.S.; according to the National Golf Foundation, only 14 new 18-hole–equivalent courses were built in 2014 while more than 150 closed their gates. The same statistics show that, while a total of 3.7 million people took up golf in 2013, 4.1 million golfers left the game, for a net loss of 400,000 players. The biggest losses were in the 18-34 age group — nearly 200,000 people — that also happens to coincide with television’s prime demographic.

The new noisiness of golf has perked up the ears of some broadcasters, including Fox Sports, which will begin airing USGA events in 2015, including the U.S. Open and the British Open.

“It’s something we’ll need to take a look at,” says Fred Aldous, the network’s audio consultant and senior mixer. He feels that crowd noise at some holes may be useful as an additional engaging audio element but will need to be managed, possibly by a combination of judicious submixing and microphone placement. “We haven’t discussed the philosophy of what we want our golf shows to sound like yet, other than what you normally hear,” says Aldous, an avid golfer himself. “But this is going to be an element to consider.”

Eriksson says he hasn’t had much in the way of noise complaints from either the PGA or the broadcasters. “The PGA has been very flexible with this,” he maintains. “If we push it up a bit too loud, they politely ask us to turn it back down a bit, but they don’t ask us to turn it off. I think they see the technology as a way to help control the sound.”

As for broadcasters, he says they seem to be going out of their way to get the sound on-air, noting as many as four handheld cameras with attached mics at the 16th hole at the Open this year, as well as a jib camera and microphone. “I’d say they’re miking for it.”

Expect the trend to continue. Eriksson says he has been getting regular inquiries from other tournaments about how he manages the live sound around the hole. “Golf wants that kind of energy.”

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