News & Opinion

What a year it’s been since last Players Championship

Hideki Matsuyama leads first round 2020 Players Championship
Hideki Matsuyama posts a 9-under 63 for what would become a short-lived lead in the 2020 Players Championship.

1 year after PGA Tour pulls plug on season at TPC Sawgrass, huge changes reshape our lives, but golf realizes an unexpected bonus

It felt very much like an attack on the nation. What else could have the power to bring the world as we knew it shockingly to a dead stop? Most of us had never heard of a coronavirus, and almost none of us understood it.

But the news from around the world was that it had become a pandemic, and the only way to prevent it from crippling hospitals and decimating the population was to interrupt our normal activities.

One year ago on March 12, the PGA Tour and the world of golf as a whole came face-to-face with the grim reality when the Players Championship was canceled after one round and the Tour season was suspended, for what eventually would become three months.

As the Players begins today, the previous 12 months seems like a lifetime ago, yet it’s hard to believe it’s been an entire year. Life is far from normal, but 10,000 fans will be on the grounds at TPC Sawgrass each day this week, the largest crowd allowed on Tour since the restart in June. Although it’s only 20 percent of usual capacity, and masks and social distancing still will be required, players are overjoyed that they have been accompanied for a few weeks, no longer forced to play competitive golf in relative silence.

Remarkably, many aspects of golf in the U.S. actually have thrived through the pandemic. Early on, golf was deemed to be a relatively safe activity and, as a result, avid and occasional golfers alike flooded courses, eager to escape home confinement. The number of rounds played and equipment sales soared after courses were allowed to open.

Last year in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the news was as stunning as it was sudden. The first inkling that something was wrong was on the Wednesday night of Players week, when news broke that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had become infected with COVID-19 and the NBA shut down its season. The dominoes soon toppled: NCAA March Madness and the NHL, and Major League Baseball called off spring training.

After Thursday’s first round of the Players, when Hideki Matsuyama shot 63, the Tour announced at 6:15 p.m. that the remainder of the tournament would be played without spectators. That decision was the result of a marathon meeting among Tour executives that lasted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

Late in that gathering, the question was asked, “What would a reasonable person expect us to do?” The answer was clear: At 10:15 p.m., a text message went out to the competitors that the Players was canceled and the PGA Tour season stopped.

While it seems shallow and insensitive, considering the gravity of the situation, life without golf – either in person or on television – created a real empty place in people for whom golf is much more than a game.

As we slowly, carefully, gingerly took one step and then another, courses started opening again in May. Golf was conducive to social distancing, and public-access courses and private clubs took safety measures. Not only was it outdoor exercise, but golf proved for many people to be a powerful mental-health restorative.

Starting times in many parts of the country were at a premium, and the numbers showed it. In an industry that was stagnant, at best, golf recorded a surge in rounds played that hadn’t happened since Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996.

According to Golf Datatech, rounds in May were up 6.2 percent, followed by gains of 13.9 percent in June, 19.7 percent in July, 20.6 percent in August, 25.5 percent in September, 32.2 percent in October, 57.5 percent in November and 37 percent in December. For the year, rounds played soared 13.9 percent.

Golf equipment sales hit $2.81 billion in 2020, a 10.1 percent increase over 2019, Golf Datatech reported, as opposed to low single-digit gains in the previous two years. The National Golf Foundation estimated that when the reporting is done, the increase in junior golfers in 2020 could reach 500,000.

Those are eye-popping numbers, and whether golf sustains those gains and turns them into real growth is the great unknown.

The PGA Tour reopened in June, but the LPGA and European tours didn’t come back until July. Many of the developmental tours lost their seasons altogether.

All three major tours resumed play without spectators, and under strict testing protocols and requirements of safe behavior among players and caddies. From June to the end of November, 18 PGA Tour players tested positive for COVID-19. Six more have withdrawn after positive tests in 2021, including former Masters champion Danny Willett, who withdrew from the Players Championship.

It's an important reminder that this scourge is not yet over. Although vaccines are getting into millions of arms, the number of infections and deaths, while sharply falling, are still much too high in the estimates of health officials.

While the financial damage to professional golf has been significant, the extraordinary effort to bring back the game, even in a stripped-down form, is reason for everyone involved to be uncommonly grateful.

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