News & Opinion

PGA Tour reverses itself, cancels Players Championship

Tour calls off its flagship event late Thursday after 1 round and decides not to play for the next 3 weeks, through the Valero Texas Open, citing the coronavirus pandemic

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was the middle of the Players Championship’s opening round Thursday morning when a couple of fans called out to Jordan Spieth’s group, saying, “We’re going to miss you guys this weekend!”

Spieth was several strokes over par at the time and a little miffed by the comment. “I thought that was kind of rude,” said Spieth, who thought they implied he was heading for another missed cut. “I was like, Man, we’ve still got some golf left.

The Players Championship
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan addresses the media Thursday at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course during the 1st round of the Players Championship, which was canceled later in the evening.

He soon learned that the spectators knew something he didn’t. It was the fans who wouldn’t be here for the weekend. The PGA Tour announced in midmorning that it was banning all non-essential personnel for the rest of the Players Championship starting Friday, and for the next three PGA Tour events, through the Valero Texas Open, the week before the Masters, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That was just the start of perhaps the craziest day in Players Championship history. Perhaps? No, definitely.

Sometime around 6:30 p.m. EDT, the PGA Tour announced that fan-less Friday was a definite go.

In the wake of the cancellation of most other major sporting events as the day wore on and notable closings of Broadway, Disney and other theme parks, the increase in the number of fallen dominoes and apparent changing tide of public opinion may have swayed Tour administrators.

Then, just before 10 p.m. EDT, the PGA Tour made a dramatic U-turn. The Players Championship was canceled, the Tour announced, along with every other PGA Tour-related event (including on the Korn Ferry and other developmental tours) for the next three weeks, up until the Masters on April 9-12.

This is golf’s future, and every other major sport’s, and they’re all on hold. It was an odd turnaround because early Thursday afternoon, the fifth fairway was lined with fans when No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy teed off. It seemed like business as usual, even though most fans on the course knew this would be their only day of spectating. Before the evening news began, the scene with McIlroy was just a memory, one that won’t be seen again for nearly a month, at the earliest.

Golf is at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic. Just like every other group activity. It’s suddenly a new world out there, and we still don’t have a handle on it. Pro baseball, hockey and basketball games are suspended. The NCAA scrapped all of its post-season competitions, including the celebrated March Madness basketball. Who even thought that could happen?

The PGA Tour’s change of heart might have been a better-late-than-never decision.

“Today’s over-reaction could look like tomorrow’s under-reaction,” McIlroy told Golf Channel on Thursday night. He added that he had concerns not only because of how many tournament volunteers are seniors, the age range for those most vulnerable to coronavirus, but because he has some older relatives himself.

McIlroy also made a case for testing for the respiratory ailment, a topic that had barely been considered, much less discussed.

“Everyone needs to get tested,” McIlroy said. “For us to keep playing on Tour, all of us Tour players and those involved need to get tested. We all know you can have the virus and not have any symptoms.”

Nearly 135,000 infections have been reported worldwide, with nearly 5,000 deaths, though more than half of those numbers are in China. Nearly 1,800 cases have been reported in the U.S., with 41 deaths. Health officials said those numbers will go up in the U.S. before they start to level off and then drop.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee criticized the Tour's initial decision to play without fans. “I don’t see the upside to continue to play,” he said. “When you look at the scenario unfolding here, why would they not consider the worst possible scenario? The event is local, but what happens here emanates all over the world? If they leave here – a player or two, a caddie or two – and find out next week they’ve been infected, you can’t help but consider the legal ramifications.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan made an even more compelling case for stopping golf. His tour has postponed a half-dozen events, including its first major of the year, the ANA Inspiration.

Whan told Golf Channel, “If I’m being totally honest, I feel fairly confident we could probably play Phoenix, even Carlsbad without our fans. But can I live with it if I’m wrong? If I’m wrong, I’ll regret that the rest of my life. This is a decision I may not like, but I don’t think I’ll ever regret it.”

The PGA Tour, whose playing arena is outdoors on sprawling courses, was in a distinct minority of sports that planned to continue to compete. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan conceded that plan could change at any time, saying, “This is an incredibly fluid and dynamic situation. We’re committed to being responsible, thoughtful and transparent with our decision process.”

Conditions changed. Hard questions were asked. Should golf march on or not? Does playing on 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?

English golfer Lee Westwood, who did not compete here this week, sent out this tweet after the initial proposal to continue play without fans: “Considering the approach of other sports in the U.S., I’m surprised how little the PGA Tour are doing. I know we don’t play in a confined arena but surely our age range of fans are more susceptible. European Tour have postponed events in August already.”

Taiwan’s C.T. Pan was in the Players field but withdrew Thursday because of virus fears. He played college golf at Washington in Seattle, near where the coronavirus has struck especially hard.

“I’m probably the only one not playing,” Pan tweeted. “Same as the number of hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining.”

No one knows where this pandemic is going. No one knows what to expect next. An estimated 50,000 coronavirus patients already have recovered without the help of vaccines, but what does that really mean? Actor Tom Hanks and his wife became the first celebrity patients. They reportedly already are recovering. The script is changing fast, and today’s plan can quickly turn into tomorrow’s fishwrap.

We can agree on one thing, however: golf’s place in the world.

“What we’re doing is insignificant compared to what’s happening out there,” said Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, a former U.S. Open champion. “It’s difficult to know what to say because sport is insignificant compared to what we’re dealing with. We’re so insulated, and in the moment, we think, This is such a major golf tournament. We need to play, and this is what we practice and play for. But we’re talking about a major global problem. At the end of day, professional sport means nothing in the lens of making the world safe again.”

McDowell is so right that it seemed almost silly to ask players about their rounds Thursday or consider writing a story about who was leading. For the record, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama knocked a 3-wood onto the ninth green, his final hole, and made the 24½-foot putt for an eagle that gave him a 9-under 63 and tied the course record (scores). No record-tying 63 has ever gotten less attention, but these are unusual times, as Matsuyama knew.

“Of course, everyone’s concerned about the virus,” he said through a translator. “But I know we’re in good hands. It’s up to us to follow their directions.”

For the PGA Tour, this pandemic is like running into an iceberg and not knowing how bad the damage might be. Maybe it’ll be fixable, or maybe it’ll be like a certain infamous oceanliner. This is uncharted territory for officials, players, media and fans.

“Yeah, we got a text from the Tour saying, ‘Plan on playing Round One as scheduled,’ ” Spieth said. “That’s not sent every Thursday.”

McDowell said he half-expected horns to sound midround and stop play, given the suspension of other professional leagues he’d heard about Wednesday evening.

Monahan ended the daylong speculation with the final decision Thursday night. He was scheduled to meet the media at 8 a.m. EDT Friday here.

Will fans get refunds? That will be announced on the Tour’s website, he said. What about ticket sales, and how might that affect the Tour’s sizable charity contribution? That is under discussion, he said.

There are many moving parts and unintended economic consequences for every decision. Raise your hand if this is the week you’d like to be commissioner of the PGA Tour. Yeah, didn’t think so.

It would have been a very quiet Round Two. Many Tour players supported the initial decision on the grounds that it was better to play without fans than not play at all. In the end, safety concerns overruled everything else.

Project ahead a few more weeks while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Next up is the Masters Tournament. Will it be played or not? There was no word Thursday night from Augusta National Golf Club officials, who run the tournament.

This could be just the beginning, or the beginning of the end, but golf rigs for silent running for the next three-plus weeks. How longer before golf resumes?

No one knows. But the fan who called out to Spieth had it right: We’re gonna miss you guys.

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