The best fans of them all
If you wanted fun at The Presidents Cup, hanging with The Fanatics was your best bet. Here's why.
October 13, 2015
By D.J. Piehowski, PGATOUR.COM
If you wanted fun at The Presidents Cup, hanging with The Fanatics was your best bet. Here's why.
SONGDO IBD, INCHEON, South Korea – It’s 5:58 a.m., and my rain suit is so wet from the walk it makes me pause before sitting on the beautiful furniture in the lobby of the Central Park Hotel. Not that Central Park. This one sits in the middle of a futuristic city in the northwest corner of South Korea. It’s the one I walked through this morning to meet up with The Fanatics, the most interesting interview subjects I’ve had in my career.
I don’t feel great about it, but I collapse into a manila suede chair. It’s already been a rough morning (or so I think). Between the previous night’s trip to some place called Eagle Screen Golfzon, an incredible golf simulator center where a few of my colleagues and I played the Old Course at St. Andrews until the wee hours of the morning, and the pizza, beer and lack of sleep that went along with it, I’m already feeling 3 down through 3. My eyes, still struggling to adjust, bounce lazily between my cell phone and the immense lobby of the hotel. It’s spectacularly quiet and a beautiful change of pace from the cold, pounding rain coming down outside. An impeccably dressed hotel employee takes a few loud, slow footsteps across the marble floor of the hotel and the sound bounces between the marble walls and the high ceiling. I can’t see the elevator, but around the corner, I hear a sharp ding and the opening of doors. Two more sets of footsteps, slower than the first, start to make their way toward me and I look up to see two young men, struggling their way across the lobby as if they are fighting through quicksand.
Their outfits, which match, deserve their own paragraph. The best way to describe them is to ask you to imagine a version of James Bond that buys all of his clothes at a card and party store. It’s something of a tuxedo, with an electric green jacket, shiny black pants and an apathetic bow tie pulling everything together.
Two more tuxedos come around the corner, worn by a man with a disheveled crop of brown hair and another with a blonde handlebar mustache. They crumble into a loveseat near their friends, cross their arms and lean back to stare at the ceiling, half dozing off and half laughing at the absurdity that they are already awake. Another comes around the corner, nursing a heavy limp and carrying his jacket in his hand. For the next 15 minutes, more and more tuxes trickle in. Most are the same shade of radioactive green, but there are also variations (black, gold sequins, etc.). The hangovers and unkempt clothes and hair make them look like a bunch of teenagers waking up after a rowdy prom.
“Y’all are looking sharp today,” says a boisterous voice from across the lobby. It’s coming from what has to be the only cowboy in South Korea, an American man with black boots and a black Stetson hat to match. The lads would refer to him as Woody for rest of the day, nicknaming him after the character from “Toy Story” and shouting, “Somebody poisoned the water hole,” each time they run into him.
“We look good, but we’re feeling a bit dusty this morning,” says one of the men. “I think we might have slept a bit too quickly.”
The struggle the boys are facing is real. It’s the result of a dinner that turned into drinks. Drinks that turned into more drinks. More drinks that turned into a trip to the nightclub. But the kiss of death was the karaoke that came next. I ask one poor soul how much sleep he’s running on.
“Probably about 40 minutes,” he says with a depressed smile.
It’s at this point that I realize I won’t be discussing how tired my four hours of sleep have made me. I’ve quickly picked up my ball and conceded that match to The Fanatics. When it comes to comparing hangover stories, These Guys Are Good.
By the time 6:25 rolls around, the entire group (everyone that made it out of bed, anyway) is assembled in the lobby. After posing for their first photo request of the day, the group gets its first bit of good news, delivered by their leader, a man that goes simply by Disco.
“Tee times are delayed an hour due to the weather,” he says. “Looks like we’ve got a few stragglers this morning, so that might not be the worst news.”
The opportunistic members of the group bolt for the hotel’s restaurant to grab breakfast. And fluids. The rest trudge to the shuttle bus that’s waiting in the rain outside to take them to Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea.
“F--- it,” one of the men says. “We might as well go to the course. No use trying to blend in dressed like this.”
For every round of The Presidents Cup since Royal Melbourne in 2011, The Fanatics have been on the first tee to cheer on the International Team. And they would have been there at 7:05 for Saturday’s first tee time, too. But on this gray, rainy, hungover morning in South Korea, they won’t complain about having an extra hour to get there.
In 1997, David McClatchey was a P.E. teacher headed to the U.S. Open (tennis) with some friends from Australia. When Aussie Patrick Rafter won, thanks in part to the support of McClatchey and his pals, Rafter’s brother invited the group to the after-party to say thank-you and celebrate.
Also at the party was former tennis player John Newcombe. Late in the night, in a conversation in the bathroom, he mentioned that McClatchey and his friends should make their way to the Davis Cup the following year to cheer on the Aussies.
“It just kind of snowballed from there,” said McClatchey, whom you can call Disco, a name he picked up from his friends in the 1980s when he refused to start calling them “nightclubs.”
Today, the Fanatics have taken more than 100,000 people to sporting events around the world, supporting Australian players in cricket, tennis, soccer and, somewhat recently, golf. Disco organizes all the trips, which has turned into a full-time job. At last year’s World Cup, they took more than 2,000 Fanatics to Brazil.
While they do have support from many of the events’ organizing bodies, including the PGA TOUR, the Fanatics have no sponsors, preferring to “keep the brand clean.” This week at the Presidents Cup, there is a group of more than 20, the majority of which are from Australia, with some South Africans thrown in the mix, as well.
“This is what a lot of us love to do, so we do what we have to and save as much money as we can between events to make sure we can get there,” one tells me.
Every army needs a general and it’s clear that Disco is that. He’s the one shouting out the next song and commanding where he wants his men.
“We need seven of you up with Charl, and the rest of you here,” he shouts when matches get close. They used to have a Sloppy Helmet for the group, which was an Evel Knievel-style American flag motorcycle helmet reserved for the Fanatic that messed up a song or something along those lines.
“Disco thought it was a bad look for the brand, so it had to go,” one man says. “Something about us cheering for the Aussies wearing the U.S. flag didn’t feel right.”
When a few Fanatics are too hung over to make it to the course on time, Disco is beside himself.
“You know this isn’t optional,” he says.
Sangmoon Bae celebrates with The Fanatics after teaming with Hideki Matsuyama for a victory in Saturday four-balls. (Harry How/Getty Images)
When they arrive at the course, the cold rain still coming down, each one of the Fanatics knows exactly where to head: The Captain’s Club, the largest hospitality tent at The Presidents Cup. Keeping with the army theme, the Captain’s Club has turned into the Fanatics’ MASH unit for the week. It’s a place to recover, recuperate and gather the supplies they’ll need for their first mission of the day (breakfast and beer, not necessarily in that order).
Ordinarily, the first beer of the day – this week it’s Hite Lager – is at 6:45 a.m. That’s what Disco warned me of when I asked to embed with the Fanatics for the day. But on this day, there is a collection of Coke cans and Powerade bottles spread out across the three tables the battered crew is crowded around. Australia’s first battalion has suffered a rare defeat and morale is low.
After a few minutes, someone starts brainstorming new cheers for the day and the group starts to show signs of life.
“Did you guys hear what Mickelson said yesterday?” someone asks. A phone at the table already has the video pulled up and makes its way around, eliciting blank, shocked stares from all that see the nine-second clip from Friday’s press conference. From the phone, you can hear Phil, discussing his rules violation, spouting off a bit of sarcasm that didn’t exactly land in the media center:
“We spotted the Internationals’ best team two holes and they still couldn’t beat us. Just saying.”
“JUST SAYING!” one of the Fanatics shouts out. The term would become a catchphrase for the rest of the day, used as punctuation anywhere and everywhere.
“Mate, you’re looking a bit dodgy today, just saying.”
“I need another beer, just saying.”
“This match is all square, just saying.”
No one suffers from the brainstorm session more than Jordan Spieth. As the Fanatics are going through quotes from Friday, they see one from the world No. 1, describing how poorly he played on Friday.
“Merry Christmas, International Team.”
“How about just a nice, ‘The Internationals played well today?’” one man says. They make a group decision quickly on how they’ll handle the quote.
Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson celebrate the United States victory with The Fanatics. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
After breakfast, the group rises to head to the first tee. They file out of the Captain’s Club in single file, all following a rail-thin Fanatic that’s waving a large Korean flag over his head, chanting “KO-RE-A” as they make their way through the crowd. Someone in the group points out – and he’s so spot-on – that they look like the world’s worst Olympic team entering a stadium. I mention to him that bringing the flag was a nice touch.
“Yeah, I’m not sure where it came from,” he says. “I think he might have stolen it off the street last night.”
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, it’s doing much more to instill national pride in this environment than if it were hanging on a streetlight.
The army trudges up the stairs of the tightly-packed grandstands and takes its spot, a roped-off area front and center behind the first tee. Upon arrival they get an ovation from the crowd that rivals a few of the lesser-known players. The first beer is cracked at 7:37 a.m.
It only takes a few minutes to understand why they are all dressed like Psy. When the first players arrive on the first tee, Disco looks at Tony, the group’s resident jukebox, and says, “OK, get them going.”
Tony rises to his feet and politely shouts out instructions to the other fans in the grandstand.
“Everyone stand up, please,” Tony yells. “Do you guys know Gangnam Style?”
Any language barrier that existed is instantly wiped away and the polite Koreans in the crowd start cheering and nodding excitedly. Tony calls out a quick 1-2-3 and the entire crowd launches into a rendition of the popular song, crossing their extended arms in front of them and hopping from foot to foot, making the grandstands bounce like a suspension bridge.
It’s clear by Day 3 which songs will be yelled out for each player. Among the highlights:
• “Danny Lee” (sung to the tune of “Let it Be”)
• “Glory, Glory to Lahiri”
• “Give it to Me Jaidee/Pretty Fly for a Thai Guy”
• “Don’t You Want Me Bowditch”
• “Matsuyama Yama Yama Yama Chameleon”
These songs were all written by the group over spicy Korean pork on Wednesday night.
“The spicier it got, the better the songs got,” one man says.
This doesn’t mean they can’t improvise. Needing a song for Charl Schwartzel, Disco, one of the oldest members of the group, teaches the entire mob all the words to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” which becomes a staple for the rest of the week.
Ordinarily, songs and chants are reserved for the International players, but when Spieth arrives on the tee, they make a special exception. With a smile on his face, Gareth, the Fanatic with the shaggy blonde hair you’ve seen front-and-center, starts singing at the top of his lungs.
“Weeeeeeeeeee wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas …”
On October 10, the crowd is (understandably) confused, but Spieth is not. He hangs his head and laughs to himself, explaining to a handful of people on the first tee what the song is a reference to. When the Fanatics are finished, he gives a quick clap and an over-the-head thumbs up. Game recognize game.
For the rest of the day, Gareth and the group are thinking of the most self-entertaining Christmas connections they can make. At one point during the match, standing on the rope line between holes, he re-creates an obscure scene from “Home Alone.” As Spieth walks by, he says, quietly and solemnly, “Merry Christmas, Kevin.”
As he made the turn Sunday, Dustin Johnson diverted for a phone with The Fanatics. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
If you’re curious how the players feel about the Fanatics, the proof is in the photos. Everyone from Tiger Woods to George W. Bush has taken photos wearing their green caps. Adam Scott was chatting them up during his round on Saturday, asking about their uniforms. During his singles match on Sunday, Dustin Johnson took a detour on his way to the 10th tee to pose for a photo with the Fanatics.
Even Spieth, shortly after the U.S. retained the Presidents Cup, sprinted over to the Fanatics to swap hats and take photos. An hour earlier, his caddie Michael Greller (also now wearing a Fanatics cap) was shouting at the group to be quiet while Spieth was reading putts.
As Spieth smiled for the photo, Gareth started up again.
“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …”
To avoid the responsibility of remembering the lyrics, each day the Fanatics’ true love gave them another “Jordan Spieth.”
“Maybe we’ll see you guys tonight,” Spieth said before leaving, referring to the U.S. celebration party. Based on a few photos I saw that can’t be posted here, I can report that they made it.
Before leaving South Korea, the Fanatics had one more song, removing any doubt about whether they would be at Liberty National in 2017, ready to take on the raucous New York City crowds in the name of the International Team.
“We want to be a part of it … New York, New York,” they shouted.
If they can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere.