PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida — Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama had just tied the course record with a 9-under 63 in the opening round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.
But when Matsuyama, his caddie and interpreter made their way to the clubhouse a few minutes later, there weren’t any fans or autograph seekers to greet him.
There weren’t any high-fives or backslaps, either.
It was a new and subdued day on the PGA Tour, and players and everyone else weren’t sure how long the uncertainty around the COVID-19 outbreak will last.
“It was tough,” Justin Thomas said. “It’s awkward this week because you want to give high-fives, you want to sign autographs, but you have to be a little selfish at a time like this and you have to be cautious.”
Earlier Thursday, as Matsuyama was finishing the back nine of his sizzling round, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced that its tournaments would go on, but without fans.
The changes will take effect for the final three rounds of the Players Championship this weekend and at least the next three events, the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida; the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas; and the Valero Texas Open in Houston.
“It will be strange [Friday],” Matsuyama said, through his interpreter. “I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery. But with that said, I know there’s a lot of people watching television and a lot of fans rooting for us and so I’ll do my best.”
On Thursday, as concern about COVID-19 gripped the country, the PGA Tour was the last American professional sport still standing. The NBA suspended its regular season on Wednesday night, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus (a second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, has also tested positive for the virus).
By Thursday afternoon, the NHL had suspended its regular season, and Major League Baseball had suspended spring training and delayed Opening Day by at least two weeks. The MLS and Association of Tennis Professionals suspended play for 30 days and six weeks, respectively. NASCAR still plans to hold its Cup race in Atlanta on Sunday without spectators.
Universities and NCAA conferences also suspended spring sports, including men’s and women’s basketball. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC canceled their in-progress basketball tournaments on Thursday, and the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships — including March Madness — shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour announced it will continue, albeit without fans.
“I think if you look at our venues, obviously we’re an outdoor sport, we’re not in a stadium, and here this week at TPC Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres,” Monahan said during a news conference on Thursday. “You’ve got 144 players here and over the course of a round our players generally do socially distance themselves, we felt like by taking this step to address the problem with our fans, we’re in a position where we can continue to operate the events as of right now. There are other circumstances that led to the decisions that those leagues made that are unique to those leagues that we’re not currently faced with.”
Monahan said he is aware that others might criticize the PGA Tour for continuing to play events, while most other sports have shuttered because of public health risks. Monahan said he consulted with President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and local, state and federal health officials before reaching a decision.
“I think it’s natural to feel pressure to do what others have done,” Monahan said. “I think you have to look at what’s unique to your sport relative to what others have done, and I think our sport is unique, particularly given the venues where we host our tournaments.”
On Wednesday, the PGA Tour offered fans who weren’t comfortable attending the event full refunds. The tour said it would also reimburse fans who purchased tickets for the final three rounds.
The PGA Tour anticipated about 200,000 fans at the Players Championship over the course of the week. With so much uncertainty, Thursday’s crowd wasn’t nearly as big as in past years. The stadium seating around the famous 17th “Island Hole” was still somewhat crowded, although some fans seemed to be practicing “social distancing,” which has been encouraged by health officials.
“I think everybody’s a little bit worried about it, but we’ve just got to get through it,” said Brian Harman, after his opening-round 71. “It’s a bad situation, but I’ve got full faith that the tour is going to take care of us. It’s just precautionary. They had to do it, and I think it’s the right call because it’s either that or you’ve got to cancel golf tournaments. It stinks, especially with the weather this week. It would have been a highly attended event.”
Not every PGA Tour player was comfortable playing in front of spectators on Thursday. Taiwan’s C.T. Pan was scheduled to tee off at 2:02 p.m. ET, with Adam Long and Si Woo Kim, but he withdrew over concerns about COVID-19. In a tweet that was later deleted, Pan seemed to criticize the tour’s preparedness when he wrote that there were the “same number [of] the hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining.”
Pan, 28, later explained his decision on Twitter:
— C.T. Pan (@ctpangolf) March 12, 2020
PGA Tour rookie Scottie Scheffler, who fired a 4-under 68 in the first round, didn’t fault Pan’s decision not to play.
“I’m definitely taking precautions and taking the virus seriously, but I think as far as C.T. goes, that’s a decision for him,” Scheffler said. “I don’t think you’re going to see me pulling out of any events anytime soon, but it’s a very fluid situation so we’ll see. For me, just take the right precautions: Don’t touch your face, wash your hands a lot and don’t touch others.”
Other players, including Jhonattan Vegas, were worried about getting family members home safe. Vegas said he was exploring how to get his wife, 4-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son home on a private plane, so they wouldn’t potentially be exposed to someone infected on a commercial flight.
“It’s so weird and so new,” Vegas said. “At the end of the day, you have to think about other people’s health and that’s the priority.”
Webb Simpson said he had problems focusing during his opening round, knowing that his wife and son were coming to Ponte Vedra Beach on Thursday night.
“It was hard for me early in the round to settle in and really focus and be all there, knowing what could be the impending news of the tournament being canceled or fans coming,” Simpson said. “My wife and son are coming [Thursday night]. So you’re thinking about all of it.”
Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion and one of the more outspoken critics of the tour, said he was disappointed that the tour hadn’t done more to protect players and fans after the NBA abruptly suspended its season on Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning, shortly before Glover teed off during his opening round at TPC Sawgrass, he voiced his displeasure on Twitter.
Rest of sports and media: why don’t they drug test on the @PGATOUR
Tour: okay, we better start doing that too.
Rest of sports and media: think we better stop and stay away from crowds.
Tour: hold our beers it’s @THEPLAYERSChamp week!!!
— Lucas Glover (@Lucas_Glover_) March 12, 2020
“I don’t know, maybe because we play outside and we’re not as close together,” Glover said, after firing a 2-under 70 on Thursday. “That’s the only thing I can really think of, but what about all of these people slammed in here together, breathing on each other and handing us their hats to sign?
“I thought I’d wake up this morning to a different tune, and that’s what spurred that tongue-in-cheek tweet this morning, which I thought was hilarious but obviously other people didn’t.”
Glover said someone told him about Monahan’s announcement that spectators would not be allowed to attend the final three rounds of the Players Championship after he hit his tee shot on No. 17.
“That’s what you want to be worried about walking up to that green,” Glover said.
Glover said he agreed with Monahan’s decision, even if it was a little late.
“That’s probably first steps, with not having a tour member having tested positive,” Glover said. “The NBA had to go to a different level because somebody inside a locker room that has had contact with other players [tested positive]. It’s a great first step as long as the players are clean from the virus. We’re not in that demographic for high risk, but we’ve got to protect the fans and protect the sponsors.”
Glover recalled PGA Tour players competing in front of very few spectators during the third round at the 2012 AT&T National at Congressional in Bethesda, Maryland. After a microburst with 80 mph winds toppled about 40 trees and blew away smaller tents, tour officials elected to keep the gates closed to fans after a six-hour delay.
“I didn’t make the cut, but I had to go to the golf course to get my clubs to go practice somewhere else,” Glover said. “Just driving in, it was bizarre. There was nobody in the parking lots. It was like, ‘Man, this is kind of nuts.'”
Australia’s Marc Leishman was playing in the group in front of Tiger Woods during the third round at Congressional that year. He said it was strange not hearing the roars that typically follow Woods’ good shots.
“There was just the grounds staff and such, so it’s different,” Leishman said. “We’re going to have to work on getting the competitive juices flowing, even though there’s no crowds. I don’t really play much golf on my weeks off, so I don’t generally play with no people around, even when I play at home.”
Tour officials allowed spectators back on the course the next day, when Woods won by 2 shots for his 74th career victory.
At the TPC Stadium Course on Thursday, most players were trying to digest the situation. Phil Mickelson said he has never played in an atmosphere like the one he will face Friday after opening the tournament with a 75.
“I’m sorry for all the fans that come out and support us like the way they have,” he said. “I mean, this has been kind of a crazy scenario. Although I’m not necessarily worried for my own health, I don’t want to get it and infect anybody else. I don’t want to infect anybody that wouldn’t be able to fight it off. I’m trying all I can not to touch people, to clean my hands with Purell or soap and water, whatever, so that I don’t get anybody else sick. I’m not worried about myself per se, but I don’t want to infect anybody.”
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell said he teed off wondering if the tournament would be canceled.
“At one point, I was nearly expecting the horns to go off out there and for us all to be taken off the golf course because obviously we were kind of seeing the news out there, hearing the news, everything that’s happening in basketball, kids walking off the court and it’s just such a weird, weird unknown quantity.”
One such unknown will be playing the TPC Stadium course with no spectators, McDowell said.
“Especially on this golf course because this is the ultimate stadium course,” he said. “This course is designed to have 75, a hundred thousand people on it, especially holes like 17 and 18. It’s going to be surreal. I would love to be in that last group on Sunday. I would love to tell you exactly what it felt like trying to win this tournament with nobody watching, not many guys have experienced that.
“I know what happened at Congressional [in 2012]. It’s going to be a bizarre feeling, especially this event where crowd interaction is such a big key to this golf tournament.
“But what we’re doing here is insignificant in comparison to what’s happening in the world and it’s unprecedented, we just don’t know how to act or what to expect.”