News & Opinion

It’s too soon for fans on PGA Tour

Spectators in golf
It’s too soon for golf spectators to attend PGA Tour events, even in limited numbers, and especially with the Masters looming, John Hawkins contends.

Spectators return to the Tour this week in Bermuda and next week in Houston, but even in limited numbers, it’s not worth the risk

The obstinate pandemic we call COVID-19 has failed to derail pro golf’s best-laid plans in 2020. No Players Championship, no British Open, but since recasting its schedule a month into the lockdown with some head-scratching decisions and no-nonsense provisions, the PGA Tour has kept the game in orbit with flying colors.

Whoever came up with that term, anyway?

A fair number of unknowns still must be dealt with, however, one of which involves the two tournaments to be played between now and the Masters. The Bermuda Championship and the Houston Open both plan to admit a limited number of fans onto the grounds, not just to sit in a designated spectator zone and try to drink beer through a facial mask, but actually to walk the golf course.

In other words, a pair of relatively minor events immediately preceding the year’s final major championship will be conducted with a higher health-risk factor than at any time since the June restart. It was a point made abundantly clear last week by no less an authority than Dr. Philip A. Mickelson, who suggested he likely would skip Houston (a staple on his schedule) to avoid endangering his presence at Augusta National.

Mickelson has collected 44 Tour victories but has yet to earn a medical degree – at least not that we know of – although you don’t need a Ph.D. to realize why he would at least consider the notion. Adding 2,000 fans to the equation may not be tantamount to dancing on the edge of a cliff; it’s the timing of all those extra bodies that raises eyebrows here. Why roll the dice at this juncture? The Masters itself decided months ago to exclude patrons. The U.S. Women’s Open – to be played in Houston in mid-December – reached the same precautionary conclusion well in advance.

These are strange and difficult times. Not only because your eyeglasses fog up after you exhale through a facial covering, but because the road ahead remains shrouded in foggy uncertainty. We continue to endure COVID-19 spikes in various parts of the country. When somebody in your federal government tells you to go back to “living your life,” that really means you should wait another month, then reassess.

Three days after implying that he might go Houstonless, Mickelson had altered his position on the matter. “That’s not a deciding factor,” he told regarding spectator admission. “I’m sure the Tour will do a great job of making it safe.”

Sounds as if someone in Camp Ponte Vedra picked up the phone and gave Lefty a little pep talk. Mickelson’s situation obviously is a bit different because he has an option: go beat up the old guys again at the Champions Tour event the week before the Masters. Even he conceded, however, that prepping for Augusta National with the seniors was like an attorney preparing for a murder trial by arguing with his wife.

Again, timing is everything in this instance. No sports league has done a better job of minimizing the pandemic’s effect on the competitive product than the PGA Tour. Major League Baseball and the NFL have found potholes aplenty on their quests to maintain normality. The NBA succeeded in completing its season with virtually no coronavirus-related episodes, but some of those guys spent more than two months in a bubble, sequestered in Orlando with heavy restrictions on visits from family members and longtime friends.

The Tour has been in a different location every week, traveling to and from events with periodic stops at home in between. To suffer just a handful of absences over the last 4½ months is nothing short of remarkable, given the zillions of miles covered by the players while they continued to do their jobs. This collective regard for personal safety and the well-being of others testifies to the game’s unparalleled character and the goodness of those who play it at the highest level.

Tour pros are, without question, the best-behaved athletes on earth.

That won’t change before or after the Masters, but the exponential multiplication of human beings at a tournament venue, especially at this point in the season, is a leap not worth making. With all due respect to Bermuda and Houston, those gatherings are not important enough to warrant the presence of fans, whether it’s 2,000 or 20,000. It will be interesting to see what the Tour decides to do in the two events after the Masters – its final two of the calendar year.

If one guy can’t make it to Augusta National because he gets sick, the Tour’s decision becomes even more questionable, at which point a certain amount of irony comes into play. With less than three weeks remaining before the world’s best golfers assemble at the game’s ultimate risk/reward cathedral, the reward that comes from permitting Joe Public on the property beforehand is not worth the risk.

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