News & Opinion

Professional golf, minus the fanfare

Yes, it’s possible to hold a tournament without spectators, as the PGA Tour and other major pro tours intend this summer, and the final result might be memorable … if anybody is there to recall it

If you hold a golf championship and no one comes, is it really a golf championship?

Some from the gallery gang might be wondering as much. The PGA Tour plans to put the ball back in the air come June in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and do so initially without boots – or sneakers – on the ground. That’s hard to imagine for some, including Brooks Koepka, who has suggested the absence of spectators lining the fairways might lead to more lost balls.

Empty golf course
Golf without fans might look something like this, with shots close to the hole but nobody there to applaud the extraordinary results.

In other words, if ever there were a time for someone like the late Moe Norman to get out there, this would be it.

But the truth is, a professional golf championship without spectators can take place, as the major pro tours intend to affirm this summer, and they do hand out a trophy. For instance, it happened 20 years ago, in Augusta, Mo. The artists formerly known as the Senior PGA Tour came to town for the Boone Valley Classic. That weekend of May 26-28, 2000, promised to be memorable for the golf-starved St. Louis area.

To prime the pump, the folks at Boone Valley lured Arnold Palmer to the championship for the only time. The field also featured crowd-pleasers such as Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Hale Irwin. The fifth playing of the championship was a sellout for the first time.

But St. Louis weather is never a lock, especially in the spring. Early Friday morning, rain arrived and the first round was delayed. The skies opened again that night, then again on Saturday night and early Sunday morning. You could almost hear Annie Lennox singing in the background. In about 48 hours, the grounds absorbed some 5 inches of rainfall.

Boone Valley Golf Club is 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis. By late Saturday evening, the 50 acres of field set aside for spectator parking no longer was viable. The Sunday morning St. Louis Post-Dispatch instructed spectators to stay home and detailed refund policies. Tournament officials posted signs and volunteers at the main arteries, instructing patrons to turn around. This scribe gained entrance only because his motorcycle could be parked by the clubhouse.

The Senior PGA Tour championship, teeming with household names, expecting more than 30,000, became a local amateur qualifier. Other than the few willing to walk or bike from miles away, other than some tournament personnel staying in nearby housing … crickets.

As play began on that soggy Sunday, in otherwise eerily vacant surroundings, tournament chairman Doug Albrecht gathered championship personnel to applaud Palmer as he teed off. Afterward, a disappointed Palmer suggested his 3-over 75 would be among his last competitive rounds. Then he did what Arnold Palmer did: he raved about his time at Boone Valley and expressed his feelings for St. Louis fans who never would see him again.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Palmer said. “I’m so sorry for that.”

Meanwhile, the conclusion of championship golf without galleries became epic. Tom Watson, possessor of eight majors, and Larry Nelson, proprietor of three, separated from the field and played in the final pairing, a virtual match-play circumstance. When Watson made birdie at No. 14, the two were tied atop the leaderboard with four holes remaining.

As I followed along, I could feel the electricity in the air. Well, I could feel a soft breeze, anyway.

When the combatants arrived at the reachable par-5 17th, Watson trailed by one. His second shot sailed to the right of the green, landing in a swale 110 feet from the flag. Nelson’s second went long and settled into thick grass 6 feet off the floor.

From an awkward, sidehill stance, Watson popped his third out of the junk and over a mound to the top of the putting surface. The ball ran downhill, twisted one way, turned the other … and disappeared into the hole. The remarkable shot was not unlike his 17th-hole chip-in that sparked his victory against Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Hilary Watson leaped into the air as her normally reserved husband broke out a Pebble Beach arm pump. The spectacular eagle jumped the shark and put Watson in the lead, momentarily. As the magnitude of the moment was being digested, Nelson playfully walked to the cup, pretending to remove Watson’s ball and toss it into the pond. Then he did something even more provocative.

Nelson calmly walked back to his ball, popped it out of the grass and watched it roll 30 feet into the hole for a matching eagle.

The golf course giveth, and Larry Nelson taketh away. Headliner on headliner, eagle on eagle, lead on lead … the most remarkable exchange in a final-round setting two eyes might ever see. And on the backside, no gallery explosion, no Verne Lundquist verbiage, no green circling high-fives.

No, just a handful of polite onlookers, a handclap here, a “nice shot” there, and on to the next. J. Michael Vernon would have loved it: “The Greatest Golf Moment That Never Was.”

The championship went to the 18th, where Watson caught his 3-iron heavy and dumped it into the water. Nelson’s 4-wood found the green, and he closed out a three-shot win. “To come down the stretch and play well against someone the caliber of Tom, that makes it special,” Nelson said afterward. With or without galleries.

At the time, Jim Holtgrieve, an amateur legend in St. Louis, was giving the senior circuit a whirl. Playing at Boone Valley, he might have realized a hometown following, but not on that Sunday 20 years ago.

“There is no doubt, it was simply weird to not see anybody out there,” Holtgrieve said. “Going forward, having no fans at future tournaments will be simply unbelievable. Some players will probably like it, but I truly believe that most players will not like it when it becomes a reality.”

The reality, that is, of holding a golf championship where no one comes.

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