News & Opinion

PGA Tour bans fans but opts to play Players

Extraordinary decision by commissioner Jay Monahan comes after coronavirus pandemic prompts other major pro sports leagues to cancel or suspend play

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – This is golf’s future … for now. The fifth fairway was lined with fans when No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy teed off there later Thursday afternoon, and you should file that image in your memory bank because you won’t see such a scene again soon. It might be longer than you think. The coronavirus pandemic is changing the world daily, and professional sports along with it.

Pro baseball, hockey and basketball games are suspended. The NCAA scrapped all of its post-season competitions, including the celebrated March Madness basketball.

The Players Championship
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 63 on Friday to lead the Players Championship, will be playing in front of no galleries for the rest of the week at TPC Sawgrass after the PGA Tour opted to ban fans because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The PGA Tour, with outdoor playing arenas on sprawling courses, is in a distinct minority of sports that will continue to compete. That could change at any time, maybe even this weekend. As Tour commissioner Jay Monahan conceded, “This is an incredibly fluid and dynamic situation. We’re committed to being responsible, thoughtful and transparent with our decision process.”

Jay Monahan
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan

Should golf march on or not? Are all of these precautions really necessary? Does playing on a such a big outdoor canvas really make it any safer for spectators, who nonetheless get bunched together near gallery ropes and in grandstands and luxury suites? The debate has begun.

There was speculation online that the pressure of other leagues ceasing operation might put so much pressure on the PGA Tour that it would feel compelled to give up its fan-less plan, possibly even before the completion of the Players.

Monahan has no answers for that or most of the other speculation. It’s just that: speculation. In his defense, the Tour is responding and making new contingency plans as it goes.

“It will be weird and a little spooky out there,” American Patrick Cantlay said. “Especially if you got paired with Phil Mickelson and it was totally empty; that would be weird. But I think it’s better than not having the event.”

Consider the irony of playing golf at a Stadium Course that has no people. “This course is designed to have 75-100,000 people on it,” McDowell said. “It’s going to be surreal. I would love to be in that last group on Sunday and tell you what it felt like trying to win this tournament with nobody watching. Not many guys have experienced that. It’s going to be a bizarre feeling.”

Project ahead while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Imagine a Masters Tournament without spectators and the traditional roars that echo through the grounds if that event also goes fan-less. As of late Thursday, the Masters had made no announcement regarding its plans, by the way.

This could be just the beginning, or the beginning of the end, but golf rigs for silent running today. It’s ironic that the PGA Tour picked a good time to debut its Every Shot Live system. For a fee, viewers will be able to see any shot hit by any player anywhere on the course. It’s a new dimension for golf coverage in a week missing the traditional dimension: spectators.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Jordan Spieth said. “We could have some fun. We could mess around like, Thank you, and wave to the crowd after a birdie, even though nobody’s there. I’m not trying to downplay the significance of it [the virus]. It will just be something we’ve never experienced before.”

The PGA Tour’s best will be back out on the course Friday. How much longer will they keep playing, with or without fans?

No one knows. But it’s very possible that the fan who called out to Spieth was prophetic when he said, “We’re going to miss you guys.”

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