Rory McIlroy woke up Friday morning ready to go to work, unaware that his day job had been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
With an early morning second-round tee time in the Players Championship looming, the world’s No. 1 golfer went to bed early on Thursday night. He never saw the text from the PGA Tour at 10 p.m. local time announcing that it’s marquee $15 million event – as well as the rest of the month’s slate including the WGC Match Play – had been scuttled over concerns for the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s the right decision,” McIlroy said when he arrived at the TCP Sawgrass to clean out his locker. “Of course it’s the right decision. I stood up there yesterday after playing and was like, doing what they did was a step in the right decision. They said they were taking it hour by hour and seeing how it would all play out and here we are.”
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that in the several hours after the first round was suspended at 7:40 p.m. due to darkness and the mass text announcing the cancellation, it became a matter of “not if but when” the tour’s “Super Bowl” would be called off.
“I'm a fighter,” a subdued Monahan said on Friday morning. “I wanted to fight for our players and our fans and for this tour to show how golf can unify and inspire. But as the situation continued to escalate and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.”
McIlroy “100 percent” supported the tour’s decision.
“If in a few weeks' time this dies down and everything is okay, it's still the right decision,” he said.
The PGA Tour has been trying to keep up with the ever-changing environment as the dominoes across the sports world kept falling in the days leading up to their flagship event. During the middle of the first round on Thursday, Monahan announced the decision to play the rest of the tournament as well as the three subsequent events on the schedule without spectators.
But as the global efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 ramped up, including a ban on travelers entering the United States from most of Europe and even the Disney World and Universal Studios theme parks situated midway between the tour’s Players and next week’s Valspar Championship venue, the decision to continue playing the event became less defensible.
“We took all the steps to make certain that if we were playing today, we were playing in a safe environment,” Monahan said. “We had minimized the number of people that were going to be out here. We weren't going to have more than 250 people in any one location...
“But when we got to late in the day and players came off the golf course, and to some of the questions that we received here yesterday – particularly from international players who were trying to figure out what they do with their family, how they get home, how they get their families here. Just uncertainty for a number of players generally. But we're also talking about a number of events going forward, when you looked to that moment in time where you have two theme parks that are located between Jacksonville and Tampa cancel … that was the final thing that we had heard that said, you know what, even though we feel like we have a safe environment and we've done all the right things, we can't proceed. And it's not right to proceed.”
The players who came to the course Friday morning universally supported the tour’s decision. The PGA will distribute 50 percent of the purse ($7.5 million) to the players who competed equally, approximately $52,000 each.
“I think he's handling it brilliantly,” former Masters champion Danny Willett said of Monahan. “I think he's handling a really terrible situation really well. We'll just kind of play it by ear and see what happens.”
“We had to do it,” said reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. “You know, it would have looked horrible if we showed up and played today with every other sports league not playing. It probably would have been insensitive, so I'm glad Jay made the decision that he did. It's best for us. It's best for the fans and our families. And you know, hopefully, the world comes together and we get over this. This is a very serious deal. It's only going to get worse right now, so it's best for us not to be playing golf.”
McIlroy planned to fly his coach, Michael Bannon, to Florida from Ireland to work with him as he prepared for the WGC and Masters, but he said that won’t happen now.
“Probably have time just to spend some time at home, evaluate the situation, and see where we go,” McIlroy said.
When would he feel comfortable returning?
“Whenever the powers that be say it's safe to do so,” McIlroy said. “I mean, all you can do is, again, follow the guidelines from CDC and from the people that really know about this thing, and that's when I'd be comfortable is when they say it's okay to do so.”
With the tour going dark for the rest of the month, attention turned to the Masters scheduled for April 9-12. Augusta National announced at 10 a.m. that it would postpone to tournament to later in the year, but no date has yet been determined.
“Unfortunately, the ever-increasing risks associated with the widespread Coronavirus COVID-19 have led us to a decision that undoubtedly will be disappointing to many, although I am confident is appropriate under these unique circumstances,” Masters chairman Fred Ridley said in a statement Friday. “Considering the latest information and expert analysis, we have decided at this time to postpone the Masters Tournament, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals.
“Ultimately, the health and well-being of everyone associated with these events and the citizens of the Augusta community led us to this decision. We hope this postponement puts us in the best position to safely host the Masters Tournament and our amateur events at some later date.”
Ridley added: “We recognize this decision will affect many people, including our loyal patrons. Your patience as we make every effort to communicate effectively and efficiently is appreciated, and we will share any additional information as soon as it becomes available. Updates also will be posted to our website, Masters.com.”
World No. 2 Jon Rahm said the cancellations were “inevitable” and wasn’t worried about what the Masters decides to do next.
“You know, I think there's bigger problems in the world right now than whether we play the Masters or not,” he said. “It's as simple as that. Hopefully, we play and we play with spectators. But again, yeah, you have air traffic being suspended to and from Europe and the U.S., families that can't see each other. Probably many players here right now that can't go back to Europe just simply because of the norm and because they have nothing else to do but to stay here. I think there's a bigger problem on our hands.”
The Masters decision will make it easier for international players whose travel options have been disrupted by the travel bans put in place to hopefully stem the spread of COVID-19.
Bernd Wiesberger was flying home to Austria on Friday and said taking care of family at home is his priority over competing in the Masters.
“I'm pretty sure more travel bans are going to happen for Europe, and it's going to be a bit crazy, so I'm actually quite fortunate to be able to go back,” he said. “But it also means that I won't be able to come back for the Masters if that's going to happen. I doubt it, but we'll see. But you know, decisions have to be made, and I think it's the only right one.”
“Not really surprised,” said Graeme McDowell, who was tied for seventh before the tournament was cancelled. “I mean, with all the other professional sports really kind of just pulling the rip cord really hard, the pressure was really mounting on golf to do the same thing.
“Even though we're a very, very different environment from closed-door arenas, it's just not an argument, though. There's such a bigger picture at stake here, and containment is so important. It's not even being seen to do the right thing. We have to do the right thing. It's a responsibility and there was just no other choice.
“It's disappointing from the point of view of this tournament where we're walking in here today, it's blue skies and perfect weather and this golf course is ready to go. But we have to be responsible and make sure that this thing gets contained, that we can move on with life.”