PGA Tour events to proceed without fans

As the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic escalated quickly over the last two days, the PGA Tour was forced to react during its flagship event on Thursday.

A sparse crowd sits around the 18th green during the first round of The Players Championship. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
A sparse crowd sits around the 18th green during the first round of The Players Championship. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

“At this point in time, PGA Tour events across all tours will currently proceed as scheduled, but will do so without fans,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

“This policy starts with the Players Championship (Friday) and continues through the Valero Texas Open.”

While sports organizations from the NBA, NCAA collegiate basketball tournaments, NASCAR auto racing, MLS soccer, NHL hockey, and major league baseball all started announcing suspensions of play or limiting fans, it was apparent that the PGA Tour was going to need to react.

Up through the eve of the Players Championship, it remained business as usual as fans flocked to the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course for Thursday’s first round. Not until after midnight Thursday with the first-round scheduled to start shortly after sunrise did PGA Tour officials acknowledge that they might need to address the issue with a little more sense of urgency. Its first step was banning autographs to limit fan engagement with players.

“The PGA Tour is aware of rapidly changing developments regarding COVID-19,” it said in a late-night statement.

“With the information currently available, the Players Championship will continue as scheduled, although we will absolutely continue to review recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and local health administrations. This is obviously a very fluid situation that requires constant review, communication and transparency, and we are dedicated to all three aspects.”

Monahan scheduled a media conference for noon to update with the more drastic changes, which will affect next week’s Valspar Championship in Tampa, the WGC Dell Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas and the Valero Texas Open that plays the week before the Masters Tournament. The event in the Dominican Republic scheduled opposite the WGC Match Play has been postponed because of travel restrictions.

The prospect of a Masters Tournament in April without roars also grows more likely. Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley released a statement last week saying it was working with health organizations 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.”

“Proceeding as scheduled” grows less likely by the hour, especially after the U.S. government issued a travel ban from the European Union for 30 days – which would extend through the start of the Masters Tournament. Veteran Golf.com writer Alan Shipnuck shared a text message he received Thursday morning from an Augusta National member that is ominous for the lucky patrons possessing practice round and tournament badges.

“I believe the tournament will be played," the text read. "Discussions are ongoing. Limiting patrons seems likely. Might be none at all. Closing practice rounds, canceling the Par-3 ... everything is on the table. Expect an announcement next week.”

Monahan said he has spoken with officials from Augusta National but did not reveal any Masters contingency plans.

“I have been in frequent discussion with Augusta, and I'll leave it to Augusta to share their thinking when they're prepared to share their thinking,” he said. “But they have been a great partner, and helpful to us as we have been thinking through this over the last several weeks.”

It's a contingency players already anticipate.

“Given the chance to play the Masters if they weren’t going to let people in, I’d still want to be out there playing and trying to win a Masters,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “Of course I’d miss (the roars) a lot, but I’d rather still have the opportunity to play.”

The economic and charitable impact of proceeding without fans will be substantial, especially at a Players Championship that attracts more than 50,000 patrons a day.

“There are a lot of hard parts to a decision like this, and that's certainly one of them,” Monahan said.

“When you eliminate fans from a tournament, that you're eliminating a significant source of the financial underpinning of an event. So at this point in time it's too early to state what the impact will be, but there will be an impact. But the spirit of this organization, the spirit of our players, the spirit of our volunteers, the spirit of everybody associated with what we do will find a way to make up for it. We wanted to focus on what's the right thing to do given the facts that we have been presented with, and we feel like that's what we have done.”

The repercussions of the global pandemic coronavirus escalated so quickly in the sports realm on Wednesday that it was hard to keep pace. The NCAA collegiate basketball tournaments announced a no-fan policy and conference tournaments halted play by Thursday.

The NBA suspended play indefinitely when the first of two Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19. The Ivy League cancelled all spring sports including men's lacrosse where three of the top five teams in the national rankings reside.

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