Tod Leonard: At Bethpage Black, fans are as much of the show as playing pros

New York sports fans have long memories and aren't afraid to share them. Loudly.

That's rather unfortunate for Sergio Garcia.

It didn't matter on Wednesday at Bethpage Black that the Spaniard had just signed dozens of autographs for small kids or that he'd stepped up to the par-3 17th tee and hit a beautiful draw that tracked over the top of the flag.

As Garcia headed toward the end of his practice round for the 101st PGA Championship that begins on Thursday, a guy shouted, "Sergio! Oh-two!"

The reference, of course, was to the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage – the first played on the monstrous state-run layout – when Garcia was the victim of New Yorkers at their most clever and crude.

Then 22, Garcia had an unfortunate habit of frequently re-gripping the club in his pre-shot routine. Some fans at Bethpage thought it would be funny to count them – out loud. Garcia, a generally popular figure at the time, responded by waving his middle finger at the gallery.

Bad move, as was later calling out the fans for being "afraid" to heckle the "big guys."

The rest of the tournament, Garcia was trailed with taunts such as "Waggle Boy" and "Waaaaah." He was dating tennis star Martina Hingis at the time, and someone sucker-punched him with, "Your girlfriend's got more majors than you!"

While most PGA Tour venues are stuck with the beyond-tired "You're the man!" and "It's in the hole!" Bethpage and its hordes of hack golfers who regularly play the course can say the darnedest things – some so outrageous that they'd be kicked off the grounds of other tournaments.

Who will be their whipping boy this week?

John Daly is a good bet, since the 53-year-old will play with a cart on a course at which no one is allowed to ride in public rounds.

Heck, Tiger Woods, the '02 Open champ at Bethpage, was skewered in the 2009 U.S. Open here for merely trying to stay dry by using an umbrella.

"We're on Long Island, baby, where men are men!" one fan yelled. "Put the umbrella down!"

Woods politely put his finger to his lips to quiet the crowd while another player hit.

"Suck it up!" was the response. "You've got your own video game!"

Speaking on Tuesday, Woods probably didn't endear himself to the locals when he noted that he and caddie Joe La Cava, who was reared in Connecticut, trash talk all the time about which is the better sports coast, east or west.

"The fans have certainly shown their rooting interests here over the years and who they want to see play well," Woods said. "Hopefully, I'm one of those and can play well at the same time."

New Yorkers are fervently partisan for San Diego Phil Mickelson, who's suffered a handful of brutal major losses in the state. Mickelson stoked their devotion this week by tweeting a replica of the "I Love New York" logo with his shadowed profile replacing the heart. He looked like the Everyman golfer for Wednesdays practice round by wearing black shorts.

Jordan Spieth said he not only heard hollers during his practice round on Tuesday, but caddie Michael Greller was getting plenty of shout-outs.

"I think they're more involved than you're used to seeing in a tournament," Spieth said. "That can be a lot of fun if you get on the good end of that."

There are, of course, plenty of respectful golf fans at Bethpage, and many who love the course for the memories it has given them through the years.

In the gallery on Wednesday was Scott Wille, a retired software salesman from Dana Point, Calif.. Wille was wore a faded volunteers jacket from the '02 Open. He explained that it was originally owned by Bob Kelly, the late father of a friend who worked as a Bethpage marshal in '02.

"I'm wearing it to honor him," said Wille, who grew up on Long Island and recalled playing one round on the Black with his own father at about the age of 14.

"That's one of the other reasons I wanted to do this," Wille added about the memories of his father. "We did this and played catch."

At the time in the 1960s, the five courses at Bethpage were decidedly scruffy, but still in high demand.

"The fairways now are what the conditions were on the greens back then," Wille said with a laugh.

"We did the whole car thing (waiting in line), out there at 4 a.m.," he recalled. "We finally got our number and went inside to have breakfast and wait for our tee time. I just remember how hard the Black was. It was 200 yards (with a drive) just to clear the junk and reach the fairway. For a kid, that was extremely intimidating."

Wille said he was looking forward to the enthusiasm a boisterous Bethpage crowd could produce on the weekend.

"I remember when I first moved from New York to California, I had to dial back on the volume," he said, grinning. "My ex-wife would tell me to stop yelling. I'd say, "I'm not yelling; I'm just discussing."

Standing near Wille near the Black's 17th tee on Wednesday was Bill Preston, from Philadelphia. Preston sported a striped Masters golf shirt and was completing leg three of his own personal majors grand slam. He said he was at Augusta in 1997 when Woods won and attended last year's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, farther east on Long Island.

Having missed the two U.S. Opens here, the trip to Bethpage was special because Preston said he played all five courses on one trip more than 25 years ago and had not been on the grounds since.

"Such a brutal golf course," Preston said of the Black. "I remember we walked it two days in a row, and when we got to this 17th green, I was almost crying going up the hill."

Preston said he just pulled out his scorecard recently. He'd save it, of course, because it was from the vaunted Bethpage Black.

"I thought I played great," he said, "and I shot 90."