News & Opinion

A different kind of week onsite at PGA

Hideki Matsuyama 2020 PGA Championship 3rd round no spectators
Hideki Matsuyama plays during the 3rd round of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, where the combination of no spectators and a skeleton crew of volunteers, tournament personnel and TV-network staffers made for a scene as surreal as the ubiquitous marine layer in San Francisco.

The view from along the ropes at TPC Harding Park: No fans, no cheers and no comparison for a major championship

SAN FRANCISCO – The past week at the PGA Championship has been interesting and very different for all those who were assembled here at TPC Harding Park for the year’s first major tournament.

As new world No. 1 Justin Thomas made an early charge Saturday, getting to 5 under through seven holes, it was stunning to see his gallery of only two, which included his father and swing coach, Mike Thomas.

Justin Thomas 2020 PGA Championship no spectators
Justin Thomas, the No. 1 player in the world, practices in obscurity during the fan-free PGA Championship as caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay (left) and Thomas’ father, Mike, a PGA professional, watch.

“It’s really weird to not have anybody out here,” said Mike Thomas, a PGA of America member and his son’s lifelong instructor. “Just different, for sure.”

The elder Thomas was walking in his socks to relieve sore feet. He had covered a lot of ground during the week, arriving three hours before his son teed off on Friday. He walked the 18th fairway and marveled at the aggressive line that bomber Bryson DeChambeau took for his drive.

When brought to his attention that he was only one of two people following the world’s top-ranked player on his early back nine Saturday, the elder Thomas was surprised.

“Wow, that’s amazing, when you think about it,” he said.

So, a gallery of two with the current No. 1. What about last week’s No. 1, Jon Rahm?

Try zero. At least early on his back nine Saturday as he started lighting up the course and got to 4 under through nine. One of golf’s most animated personalities and electric players navigated the back nine with just his playing competitor, Denny McCarthy, and their caddies. Strange times, indeed.

Clearly, there weren’t many people outside the ropes at Harding Park all week, save for a few media, club employees, and volunteers. Some within the ropes had differing perspectives on what the lack of fans and usual major-championship atmosphere felt like.

Adam Hayes, who caddies for Jon Rahm, said it was kind of nice for a change not to have the familiar sound of fans, noting “a different feel out here, and not the same noises you’re used to.”

No roars followed the likes of fan favorites Rahm, Tiger Woods or Brooks Koepka for the ninth consecutive week of the PGA Tour’s revised 2020 schedule. It’s an interesting discussion about whether the top players miss that energy during these COVID-19 times.

Jimmy Johnson typically caddies for Thomas except for the past two starts, when dizzy spells at the Memorial prompted Johnson to step aside as Thomas’ father and then Jim “Bones” Mackay filled in. Thomas misses the energy of the fans, Johnson said, and “he feeds off of it.” He speculated that their playoff loss to Collin Morikawa last month at the Workday Charity Open was greatly affected by not having spectators.

“Had there been fans at Workday, when he made that long putt [on the first playoff hole],” Johnson said, “we might have had a different outcome.”

Contestants at the PGA experienced an interesting dynamic during downtime on tee boxes or even on long walks from tees toward fairways.

On the second tee Thursday at Harding Park, Jason Day and his playing competitors had such a long wait that they were swapping jokes to pass the time.

From the elevated 18th tee box, golfers negotiate a long walk down around a canyon to the fairway, which invites player socializing for a few minutes. As a couple of observers walked past DeChambeau on Friday, one of them casually called out to the 26-year-old, saying, “NorCal’s best is back in NorCal,” to which the Modesto native who grew up in Clovis responded with an ear-to-ear grin.

Rahm and Phil Mickelson spent a number of minutes chatting during that long walk off the No. 18 tee box.

There’s also an intriguing proximity between greens and the next tees, a feature of this municipal course that was designed in 1925 during an era of walkers. On the seventh tee on Friday and Saturday, Woods had to look back a couple of times to the first green some 40 yards behind him so as not to distract players as they putted.

Because No. 7 is a short par 4, it also prompted some players to wait for the green to clear before driving. On Friday, Louis Oosthuizen decided to lay up and then walked outside of the ropes as his playing competitors waited to tee off. It was a jarring sight to see a world-class player strolling in an area typically devoted to spectator traffic.

Even though they were not allowed inside the grounds, some golf fans got creative along adjacent Lake Merced Boulevard and peered through openings in the fence onto No. 12 tee. Many snapped cellphone photos and cheered loudly for Woods. On Saturday, Jason Day smilingly acknowledged the assertive onlookers and flipped a ball to a kid on the other side of the fence.

“We miss the fans,” said Claude Harmon III, Brooks Koepka’s swing coach. “It’s just a strange kind of week without them.”

As players filled the practice tee Saturday, Rickie Fowler was loose and chatty as he stayed an extra day after having missed the cut. He even joked with a media member that the writer should hit a shot or two for him.

Of course, zero people were around Fowler. A true golf fan knows one of the best seats at a major championship is in the driving-range grandstands. The image of Fowler standing by himself on the range on the weekend of a major seems almost unfathomable for the popular star.

For those who were in contention at Harding Park, the dynamic was a strange feeling.

“[It feels the] same as the rest: weird and boring,” said Matt Minister, Patrick Cantlay’s caddie. “It’s nice to have fans to motivate and applaud good golf.”

Added caddie J.J. Jakovac, who looped for Morikawa: “It always feels weirder when you’re on the back nine Sunday with a chance to win.”

Jakovac has heard some of the loudest roars in golf when he caddied for Ryan Moore at the 2016 Ryder Cup. But clearly, the 102nd PGA Championship presented a different kind of week. In fact, it’s the new normal on the PGA Tour, and will be well through next month’s U.S. Open and into the start of the fall season.

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