BOZEMAN — The first time Chris Kelley went to see his son Aubrey play in a junior golf tournament in Montana, he was stunned to learn he wouldn’t be allowed to follow his 9-year-old on the course.
To the Emigrant resident's disbelief, the Montana Junior Golf Association followed a policy established some four decades ago by the Montana High School Association’s member schools. Unlike in all other sports, spectators were prohibited from following golfers during the organizations’ tournaments.
Only two other states, Alaska and New Jersey, have similarly restrictive rules.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” remembers Kelley, who wound up “skulking around the perimeter of the course” on residential roads in hopes of catching momentary glimpses of his son. “At first I was like, “What hole does he tee off on?’ I was told, ‘No, if you watch him he’s disqualified.’ I’m like, ‘What’s with that?’
“That’s when I found out when my boy gets to high school I’m not going to be able to watch him play there, either,” added Kelley, who has started a petition to overturn the rule and is threatening a lawsuit.
Mark Holiday, the head Professional Golfers Association pro at Bridger Creek Golf Course in Bozeman, already knew the rule wasn’t a joke. He also had to get creative to see his own two daughters compete, and remembers peering through a chain-link fence behind the old Kmart adjacent to the Butte Country Club to watch a Class AA state tournament.
“We’ve obviously said that’s really unfair,” said Holiday, echoing the sentiments of most PGA pros across the state. “Parents can watch kids play whole games from the seat of their choice in every other sport, and yet they (MHSA) don’t think this is discrimination. That’s a bizarre thought.”
Nobody seems to know the origins of a rule mostly designed to rein in parents and ensure safety, though some trace it to a Helena player and his well-heeled father, who reputedly hired a pro to coach his son hole by hole during a state event in the '70s.
Mark Beckman, executive director for the MHSA, says the statute remains on the books because member schools still want it. He said recent surveys of administrators show them supporting the status quo roughly 3-to-1, with smaller schools more heavily in favor — though Malta coach Travis Somerfeld says his colleagues in northeast Montana favor allowing spectators.
“This is a schools rule,” Beckman said. “That’s who makes the rules. I just enforce the rules.”
So when the Class B and C tournaments tee off Tuesday at Eaglerock Golf Course in Billings and Fairmont Hot Springs Resort near Anaconda, parents and other spectators once again will be denied full access.
But resistance is gaining traction and change may be in the wind.
The same survey sent to school administrators was also distributed to 34 course pros in Montana; 31 favored full spectator access with guidelines, the MHSA reports.
So, as a compromise of sorts, roughly two-thirds of the holes at Fairmont will have marked viewing areas for the Class C tournament, either near greens or by tees. Eaglerock is more challenging because it’s basically an out-and-back course, MHSA assistant director Brian Michelotti said, but viewing areas will be available at the Class B event, too.
“Will that maybe stimulate schools to change their minds?” Beckman asked. “It may if it works.”
Schools already have a blueprint to follow.
Last year, the MJGA allowed spectators full access for the first time at its state tournament at Marias Valley Golf & Country Club in Shelby. A year after 9-year-old Aubrey Kelley walked 36 holes in sweltering heat solo in Billings, his parents were able to follow him from beginning to end.
“When they changed it, the energy on the course was tangible,” Chris Kelley said. “Parents and kids were so excited that the rule had been lifted and people could watch that it kind of became a lovefest. Nobody broke the rules, everybody behaved themselves.”
Jim Opitz saw the same result.
Opitz, who wears two hats as both executive director of the Montana State Golf Association and outgoing activities director for Helena schools, said the experiment was successful enough that the MJGA will continue it this summer in Polson and next year at Lake Hills in Billings.
Opitz saluted tournament director Dale Newell, who put four simple rules in place for spectators: Stay on roads or paths, stay back from players, be vocal only to applaud good shots, and police one another.
“I really think they (parents) were so appreciative they would’ve thrown an offending parent into the Marias River,” Opitz said with a laugh.
Sporting his activities director hat, Opitz noted that a majority of Class AA schools support allowing spectators. As director of the MSGA, he said managing spectators is doable, adding that neighboring states look upon Montana with incredulity.
In a PGA meeting in March, he said, the subject arose and the Wyoming contingent said, “What’s your deal?” Opitz’s response: “I don’t know the answer exactly. I do know the coaches prefer not to have parents with the kids.”
Holiday chuckles at that time-honored line. He isn't alone in suggesting some coaches have an ulterior motive: Dropping off their kids at tournaments and disappearing to play another course to hone their own games.
“That’s a minority I hope,” Holiday said. “But there are some certainly not into the idea of having a parent watch them interact with their kids.”
Beckman and Michelotti said they’ve asked coaches to query their kids about the rule. They say many kids prefer playing without parents looking over their shoulders.
“They said, ‘Oh no, we don’t want all these people watching,” Beckman said, adding with a chuckle: “I can sort of feel that for myself.”
Grayson Waters, one of two players from Malta to qualify for the Class B tournament in Billings, said he understands Beckman's assertion and also sees the rule having an impact in another way.
"When kids move on to upper levels sometimes they get rattled because they had never had spectators and it throws them off when they encounter crowds later on," said Waters, a junior. "Initially it could hurt their game."
A related fallout from the rule: recruiting. College coaches can’t watch Montanans play except in other states.
Kelley doesn’t want to see his own son or any other Montanan who hits ‘em straight lose an opportunity for lack of exposure due to the rule.
As such, he started a petition at Change.org nearly a year ago. As of Saturday, more than 3,350 had signed, including some noteworthy golf names: Leslie Spalding, an 11-year LPGA veteran from Billings who now coaches at San Diego State; the parents of PGA golfer Xander Schauffele, winner of the 2017 PGA Tour Championship; PGA golfer Shaun Micheel; and Bert Pano, father of 7-year-old actor Alexa Pano, whose exploits in the film “Short Game” inspired Aubrey Kelley to take up the game.
Another signer is Grayson Waters' mother, Alecia. She said she first learned of the rule when the Mustangs qualified as a team two years ago.
"I was in shock," she said. "Grayson been involved in so many other things, and we know we have to be quiet as spectators and can’t be screaming directions at him. Just to see his enthusiasm or defeat is so much of parenting. He’s a junior, with only one more year of him being completely in lives, being this is his only school sports it’s disheartening to not be able to be completely involved in it. We don't get to share the glory they are in."
If the petition fails, Kelley is ready to take legal action against the MHSA on the grounds that the rule is unconstitutional. He has hired former New York City lawyer James Greenbaum, who has lived in Manhattan (Montana) for the past 14 years.
Greenbaum paraphrases a provision in the state constitution “that provides for freedom to pursue life’s interests.”
“I cannot think of anything greater for a parent than to watch their child excel at a wholesome sporting activity, and yet this association prohibits parents from doing so based on the fallacious assumption that parents might become unruly,” he said. “That’s punishing them before an actual offense.”
Greenbaum also points to freedom of speech and prior restraint as reasons the issue could be headed for a judge. He likens the rule to allowing basketball fans only to see the opening tipoff and final play of a game.
“If the association cannot recognize that parents have a legitimate, fundamental right to watch their children play golf, then yes, this is an issue that should be decided by the courts,” he said. “We don’t prohibit people from doing something in anticipation that they might do something wrong.”
PGA pros have grown frustrated enough that they’ve considered denying use of their courses if the rule doesn’t change. Doing so would effectively eliminate high school golf in Montana, a step Holiday and other pros are loathe to take — for the moment.
“I think the PGA has kind of gotten sick of the idea that we’re hosting, it’s our courses, we do all the rulings,” Holiday said, noting that courses are provided to the schools at little or no cost. “We are really called upon to do stuff for these guys plus give them a golf course, so we’ve got to push harder on this. It’s detrimental to the kids out there.”
So the hope is that this year’s expansion of viewing areas — which have always been allowed, leaving to club pros the time-consuming effort to mark their courses, as Holiday did when the Class AA event was in Bozeman in 2016 — will be a transition toward abolishing the rule.
As such, all eyes also will be on Polson this summer and Billings in 2019 during the junior events, where full access will be allowed with guidelines similar to those at Marias Valley last year.
“What I hope is that someone along the way is allowed to try it at the high school level so that they can get rid of their worst fears,” Opitz said.
Said Beckman: “As we open and provide more designated viewing areas, maybe concerns of schools and coaches will be re-evaluated.”
Malta's Somerfeld, acknowledging that managing spectators would be more challenging on mostly out-and-back courses in smaller communities, said the coaches he knows would welcome parents and other golf supporters at events.
"I think it (the rule) should be changed," he said, "and I hope it gets changed soon."
Beckman and Michelotti, conceding that access has been "a hot topic for us”, have invited the PGA’s Bob Eames of Yellowstone Country Club in Billings to speak at the MHSA’s annual meeting on the topic. Michellotti said member schools also have been encouraged to put forth proposals for change, though none have done so.
“We will follow whatever the schools are going to say,” Beckman reiterated, “and we will enforce that.”
For parents like Kelley and especially Waters, a new rule can't come soon enough. Grayson Waters will be a senior at Malta next spring, so his mom plans to spend the coming months advocating strongly for change.
In the meantime, she and her husband will have to watch Grayson the old-fashioned way Tuesday and Wednesday after making the long drive from Malta — from a distance with binoculars.
"Besides that," she added, "we'll just hang out until he gets done and see how it turns out."