Golf ponders potential of a Masters without patrons

While an abundance of precaution and concerns regarding the coronavirus spin at an ever more frantic pace in the sports and entertainment realms, it remains business as usual at the Players Championship this week.

Golf ponders potential of a Masters without patrons

The PGA Tour hasn’t – at least not yet – cancelled any events or limited fan access to its tournaments as confirmed cases of COVID-19 grow in the United States as well as around the world. But it doesn’t mean the players aren’t conscious of the potential dangers that may lurk outside the ropes.

“I just read what’s being said by the experts and people smarter than me and try to cut through the B.S. and get to the facts,” said Paul Casey. “It’s not something overly concerning for someone my age and in good health, but it obviously is if you’re older and in less healthy standing. I find myself washing my hands more than ever and try not to touch my face, but I’ve not limited interaction with fans and signed autographs this week.” 

The likelihood of PGA Tour and major golf tournaments getting cancelled or perhaps barring spectators is looming larger with each passing day. The WGC Dell Match Play is scheduled in two weeks at Austin Country Club in a city that has already cancelled an outdoors music festival. The city of San Francisco, which plays host to the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in May, announced Wednesday that it was banning public and private events of more than 1,000 people for the next two weeks to try to slow outbreaks of COVID-19 in the bay area.

The European Tour won’t conduct a regular tour event from the conclusion of last week’s Qatar Masters until the Andalucia Masters starting April 30 with cancellations of four events in Asia and Africa due to the coronavirus outbreak. Players familiar with tour communications said the Hero Indian Open won’t be the last cancelled event – a development that is likely to wreak some havoc with the European Tour Ryder Cup qualification process.

The ATP Tour cancelled its annual Indian Wells tennis tournament in California. The governor of Ohio announced that the men’s NCAA basketball championship tournament’s opening games scheduled next week in Dayton, Ohio, would be played in front of empty seats except for the immediate family of participants.

“It’s almost nothing to do with promoters and sponsors anymore, this is government level administration,” said Casey. “The growth is, I wouldn’t say exponential yet, but it seems to mushroom based on all the projections.” There is a potential for future travel restrictions that could lock down nations beyond just Italy, creating an environment in which a professional tour that consists of athletes from around the world would be forced cancel events in the near future.

“It’s a weird one,” Casey admitted. “It doesn’t affect our jobs but it might affect our jobs. I don’t know. That’s not a decision for me. I’ll just go along with whatever happens.

“Do we play behind closed doors? We still provide entertainment and an awful lot of people sitting at home because they’re not allowed to go to work. That would obviously be a disappointment to ticket holders and hotels. It’s going to disrupt a lot of people if that happens, hypothetically. We’re not saving people’s lives or anything, but we’re providing entertainment and that’s very important. Sport is one of those things that people live for, but we should never do it at the risk of putting people in harm’s way. That’s where you draw the line.” 

“If they get cancelled they get cancelled,” said Tommy Fleetwood. “That’s not worth worrying about.” 

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said Tuesday that the tour created a task force to work with local health officials on a tournament-by-tournament basis. Masters tournament chairman Fred Ridley released a statement last week saying it was working with health organisations and officials to determine the proper course of action for its events in April.

“As a result of this collaboration, and based upon our knowledge of the situation at this time, we are proceeding as scheduled for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals and the Masters Tournament,” Ridley said. “We will continue to review the available facts and information with the experts and authorities, establish precautions and take appropriate action to ensure the safety of all involved.” 

Fleetwood said it would not surprise him if events like the WGC Dell Match Play Championship or even the Masters made the decision to play the events without patrons in attendance.

“I could see it,” he said. “I don’t mind playing Augusta whether there’s people or not. You have to err on the side of caution, for sure. If you’re going to go one way, it’s not worth risking it. As golfers obviously we want to play, whether that’s with nobody around or in front of full crowds. It get every sort of angle where people come from and we just want to be safe, really.” 

In the meanwhile, as the Players Championship continues uninterrupted, the players are trying to be more mindful of their interactions with fans.

Jon Rahm, who can potentially claim the world No. 1 ranking away from Rory McIlroy with a victory this week, said he is keenly aware of the danger the coronavirus provides to his family which includes his wife, mother-in-law, brother and 85-year-old grandmother on the at-risk list with asthma issues.

“I know it’’s a respiratory problem, so there’’s so many cases close to me that it could affect, so it is obviously my duty and everyone’’s to do as much as we can to prevent that even as hard as it is, it is what it is,” Rahm said. “So this week, I love to fist pump and high five the kids, but it might be the one week where we don’’t do it. I love also to sign autographs, I might restrain from that a little bit, too. Not from being selfish reasons, I just feel like it might be the best thing for everybody.” 

Fleetwood said he hasn’t yet changed his usual habits of signing autographs and engaging with fans around the course, “but I think it’s going to be getting that way for sure as it’s becoming a bigger thing.”

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