News & Opinion

If PGA Tour errs on side of caution, then so be it

With Jay Monahan’s reversal last week in scrapping the Players Championship, the Tour takes a responsible approach at a time when so many questions about coronavirus lack easy answers

How bizarre is it to think that just a week ago, the PGA Tour made its big announcement about finalizing a media-rights deal through 2030 with a 40-percent bump in fees, and just four days later, the Tour goes on hiatus for at least a month.

Obviously, coronavirus is the major topic of conversation as businesses, schools and other institutions join the major professional sports leagues in ceasing operations in a bid to stop the pandemic.

The Players Championship
Rickie Fowler attracts a large gallery for the 1st round of the Players Championship on Thursday at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The good times didn’t last, however, as the PGA Tour pulled the plug on the tournament and the next 3 events because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The difficult decision to shut down the PGA Tour, which came after the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball suspended play, was not an easy one for commissioner Jay Monahan, but it came quickly amid the need to establish what has come to be known as “social distancing.”

Unlike the officials in the White House, the private sector is taking the lead, which should be applauded.

The decision to close down sports was an imperative after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised social distancing, which aims to keep sick people from coming into contact with healthy people and limit disease transmission.

The next decision for golf and other sports will be much harder: When do we start up again?

Late Thursday, the PGA Tour canceled events through the Valero Texas Open in early April. One day later, Augusta National Golf Club postponed the next week’s Masters, the first major championship of the year, with hopes of playing later in 2020.

If the pandemic’s pattern in China and Italy plays out similarly in the U.S., it’s fairly clear that coronavirus will not be eliminated by the week of the RBC Heritage in mid-April, only a month away and the next scheduled event on the PGA Tour. In fact, late Sunday, the CDC urged Americans to cancel or postpone any event with 50 or more attendees for the next eight weeks, unless organizers can protect vulnerable populations and ensure proper hygiene.

So, what has to happen for the Tour’s Monahan to feel comfortable enough to say that it’s safe for his players and staff to come back to work?

On Tuesday of Players week at the Tour’s home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Monahan said he was looking to the World Health Organization, the CDC, and local and state public health officials for guidance. Three days later, he took his cue from events about 150 miles southwest of TPC Sawgrass, at Orlando’s theme parks. When Disney and Universal announced the closure of their parks, the Tour followed with its own shutdown.

It’s clearly prudent to take in all available information before making a decision. It’s also clear that if the PGA Tour would have completed the Players Championship, the message likely would not have been the right one as virtually all other sports decided to pause.

It’s unlikely that the WHO or the CDC is going to send a message to Monahan giving him the green light to restart the season. Expect the commissioner and his staff to work with their players and sponsors in deciding when to play again.

But when do those discussions even start? When the infection rate starts to recede, or when the rate of infection is at a certain predetermined level?

Would the PGA Tour feel comfortable having its tournament results reported while TV news tallies the numbers of dead and infected from the virus?

Can the Tour decide to put its players on the course without fans for a period of time before opening tournaments to the public?

How long would fan-free tournaments go on before the public is allowed onsite? And what changes will there be with cleanliness, food service and autographs?

Will the Tour keep a greater distance between fans and players, to eliminate any interaction?

The decision to return to anything close to normal on the PGA, LPGA and European tours will be difficult. To suggest any answers now would be premature and irresponsible.

The next month will provide the tours with time to digest how the world is coping with the virus. Positive information might come from a pool of negative news.

Many times, players will say how difficult a shot is or reflect upon a bad round, but then say that the game is “not life or death.”

Unfortunately, we’re now talking about life and death, and golf is secondary. We all want to know when Tiger Woods will make it back and when the next major championship will be played, but society needs for golf to be a leader in a time of acute crisis and do the right thing.

If that means a month of interruption, or even a year, doing the right thing is what matters.

“Can I live with it if I’m wrong?” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said on Golf Channel, distilling his tour’s arguments about whether to play or not. “If I’m wrong, I’d regret that for the rest of my life.”

This should be the overwhelming mantra for everyone: Simply err on the side of caution.

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