News & Opinion

At TPC Sawgrass, pondering the day the music died

After pulling the plug on his own Players Championship, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan tries to strike a chord with the rest of us by urging golfers to get out there and play

'Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
– “American Pie,” Don McLean

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Last Monday broke with a promising new tournament week at the Players Championship, a day with high energy and great anticipation. On Tuesday, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan, unveiled a television rights/streaming mega-deal that will stuff the vaults at Tour HQ through 2030 (read: $12 billion in committed media and sponsor revenues). Rory McIlroy talked about his good play and poor finishes. Brooks Koepka, just back from seeing instructor Butch Harmon in Las Vegas, told us he was close. Jon Rahm reminded us with his words that, yes, one day very soon, he’ll rise to world No. 1.

The Players Championship
The Players Championship trophy (foreground) goes unclaimed for 2020 after the tournament at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the often diabolical 17th hole on the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, a band called The Chainsmokers played away in a rowdy concert. The music was blaring. In every sense.

Much like what we see at the Masters, a good portion of golf chieftains show up in northeast Florida for the Players, the $15 million crown jewel of the Tour. Monahan happened to be at a reception on Wednesday night when he got a text: The NBA had just suspended its season. Big news. Still, the PGA Tour’s biggest show – played outdoors, over 400 or so open acres in a former swampland now known as TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course – was deemed to be “safe” amid these mysterious days of the coronavirus. Play went on as scheduled on Thursday, with Hideki Matsuyama shooting 9-under 63 (tying the course record) and leading by two.

However, in the span of one dinner hour to the next, from Wednesday to Thursday, the whole world outside the confines of the golf tournament changed. Seemingly every sporting league, sporting event and any gathering with any significant crowd was being canceled or postponed. Late Thursday night, Monahan and the PGA Tour made a difficult but sound decision: They, too, would yield to the Great Unknown and step back, sending everyone home. The PGA Tour would be paused through at least the Texas Open (April 2-5).

That fast, all the rumbling music faded to silence. Early Friday morning, with the sun shining on what would have been a glorious day for golf, the Stadium Course was empty but for a few workers. Players showed up in shorts and T-shirts to the locker room and wheeled their clubs to their cars. Foreign players had to figure out a way to get home, or whether they’d even go home, highly concerned about their immediate families. All understood that there was a much bigger picture in play. Monahan stepped up to the podium once more not long after daybreak Friday, one last time in this rocky, up-and-down tournament week. He appeared weary from his too-few hours of sleep, but nonetheless kept very strong in his leadership role.

Jay Monahan
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan

Asked how much sleep he’d had the last few nights, Monahan took the bigger view, too. (“Who cares about my sleep?” he asked.)

“You know,” he said, “I love our players. I love this Tour. I love our charities. I love our volunteers. I love everything that we do. And as I said up front, while we wanted to do everything we could to play our Super Bowl, we also wanted to be smart and rational about how we were thinking about it. And so, to cancel it is a really hard decision.

“It's gut-wrenching. It's not gut-wrenching necessarily for me, but ... when you're affecting so many people's livelihoods, that weighs heavily on you. I look out at everybody here. What are we all doing over the next five weeks?”

Good question. Granted, any discussion about sports represents one small splinter on a large, crackling bonfire piling higher with the unknown over the spread of COVID-19, the deadly coronavirus. Talking heads on the news tell us things will get worse before they get better. These facts we know: We won’t be watching golfers at Valspar this week, or at the WGC Match Play or at the Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic (played opposite the Match Play), or at the Texas Open in San Antonio, either. One more hard shot to the ribs was delivered mid-Friday morning: The Masters was postponed. You might as well tell kids there won’t be a Christmas this year, either.

As the week unfolded, the facts, thoughts, assessments and quick decisions remained fluid and in constant motion. This was a golf ball bounding downhill on a concrete cart path, with no predictable outcome, no real stop. With the NBA, NHL, MLS, MLB, NCAA (no March Madness?!?) and others – the Ivy League stepped out front and canceled entire spring sports seasons – the poor optics of golf tournaments going forward, with or without fans along the gallery ropes, was a direction the sport wisely didn’t pursue.

The real-time decisions that Monahan was making took into account many constituencies – Tour pros, caddies, families, fans, title sponsors, Tour employees, vendors, charitable beneficiaries, media – that join together to compose the traveling circus that is the PGA Tour. With each shifting wind, each announcement, each new decision, came considerable thought and balanced discussion. Everything, he said, was driven by this thought: Do the right thing. Just do the right thing. With that being the guide, there would be no room for regret.

So, what is missing for us, the fans? Well, in so many instances in our history, in times of trouble and crisis (think the unspeakable terrorist acts of 9/11), sports have been there for us to fill a small role in our healing. We still get goosebumps thinking about George W. Bush walking to the mound at Yankee Stadium and firing that first pitch post-9/11. Playing basketball after the tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others this year returned us to a tiny sense of normalcy. Admittedly, writing about sports in a juncture in history such as this one can make a man feel small. Yes, we know there are far bigger things going on. That said, don’t tell a sports fan that losing NCAA March Madness, or MLB’s Opening Day, or the NBA and NHL playoff seasons, or that little tournament in Augusta, Ga., called the Masters carries no relevance in our lives. A sports fan can watch only so much Netflix and CNN updates.

In a meeting down the Florida coast late last week from where Monahan was making his big calls, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan stood in a room of about two dozen thinkers and staff members, talking about his tour’s immediate future. Could the LPGA’s meaningful Founders Cup be played this week in Arizona? Whan was the lone person to stand up and say that yes, it could. This isn’t because he’s naive, or oblivious to what’s going on; it is because Whan, like Monahan, at his essence is a fighter, a can-do kind of person. The more everyone weighed all factors, Whan realized that his players could not play. Three additional LPGA events (including the ANA Inspiration, a major) were postponed because of the coronavirus, bringing that tour’s total to six events postponed or canceled. Two Symetra Tour events in California were postponed, too. We wait to learn more, know more. To feel safer. That’s all we can do. Strange times.

“I can totally relate with all my commissioner friends, because I sit in a crisis room with 24 people around me, and I’ve probably said the same thing for five weeks: ‘We can play,’ ” Whan told SiriusXM radio host Michael Breed. “You can make this safe. Tell me we can play without fans. Tell me we can get the media their own individual rooms. Tell me we can get volunteers 10 feet away from any player, and players 10 feet from any other players … Come back and give me a plan. And to their credit, it’s exactly what they did.”

Could anyone guarantee Whan that the new plan created was completely safe? No.

“If only one person, one caddie, one volunteer, one staff member were to get sick at an event that I oversee, that’s an outcome I can’t live with,” Whan said.

He opened a memo by telling players that he hated everything about the postponement of upcoming events, but it was the right thing. He’ll do his best to make good on finding playing opportunities for his players. The ANA might be contested in autumn. Perhaps the LPGA will stage tournaments in December, when the Tour usually is on break.

Whan acknowledged that this was about more than golf. Monahan could relate. Monahan would say that in tougher times, and times of crisis, he gets inspired to do more, to do better. Saturday, Monahan was pictured in a hairnet and white apron, serving food once earmarked for Players golf fans to the needy at a homeless center in Jacksonville. It was a world away from where he sat just a day earlier at TPC Sawgrass. But in his closing remarks, he urged that there is something we all can do as the PGA Tour sits: Get out and play. Tee it up. Support your local PGA professional in a difficult time.

“Hopefully,” Monahan said, wrapping up what had been a long and emotional week, “people are inspired to continue to use this game to get through a challenging time. And that’s what we’re going to encourage people to do.”

A beautifully manicured course prepared for the world’s best players just outside the back door beckoned, with nary a soul on it. The Tour’s Super Bowl had been called off, not to be rescheduled. There will be no traveling carnival until mid-April, at earliest. So, get out there and play. Monahan’s words, like so many of his words in a tumultuous week, carried exactly the proper weight.

When will tournament golf return? You’ll know soon enough when you hear the music playing again.

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