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The day the PGA Tour stood still, and the pandemic became very real in golf

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Just before noon on March 12, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan entered the makeshift interview room at The Players for his second press conference in three days. Those few moments answering difficult questions would, in retrospect, be the easiest part of what would become the most difficult 24 hours in circuit history.

“This is an incredibly fluid and dynamic situation,” Monahan said, before explaining that the Tour would continue to play its flagship event, as well as its next three tournaments, without fans, despite a sports landscape that had almost entirely succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As first-round play wore on at TPC Sawgrass, Monahan explained that he’d been in contact with President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and that Monahan and his team were confident golf and its unique playing field were different than other sports. A day earlier, the NBA had halted play in a dramatic scene as players were pulled off the court just before the start of the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game.

“That was one that certainly got everybody's attention,” Monahan said of the moment when the pandemic became very real for many Americans.

But golf was different, he explained, and in Florida it was business as usual with malls and theme parks open. If any sport was pandemic-proof it would be golf, no?

Monahan on COVID-19: 'This is a rapidly changing situation'

Monahan on COVID-19: 'This is a rapidly changing situation'

“The PGA Tour are liaising with the best health officials and [Center for Disease Control] and [World Health Organization] and if they think that it's safe for play to go ahead but with no spectators, then I guess who am I to say any different,” said Rory McIlroy, who added that a single positive test should halt play and that everyone should be subject to coronavirus testing.

If McIlroy didn’t exactly sound all in on the Tour’s decision, know that everyone, including Monahan, was hoping for the best - but very much aware that the worst was an option.

As every other major professional sport came to a standstill, golf became a curious outlier. Could the Tour be the exception to what was quickly becoming a surreal COVID-19 rule?

“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 reasoned. “The fact that 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.”

In the Thursday twilight as the last fans of 2020 shuffled off property, Bernd Wiesberger was not as optimistic. He’d just arrived in the United States from Austria to begin his run up to the Masters and following Trump’s decision to ban travel to the U.S. from Europe his immediate future was wildly uncertain.

“If you look at the big picture, nobody knows if someone is going to be dragging [COVID-19] into our locker room. That won’t be good,” Wiesberger said. “I don’t think this is going to be the end of the bad news.”

Wiesberger’s warning quickly told hold. Before the golf world had turned in for the night, the Tour announced it had reversed course and would halt play at The Players and beyond. Players were notified via text at about 9:50 p.m. ET that the “rapidly changing situation” had led to the circuit canceling the next four events through the Valero Texas Open.

Tour cancels The Players and next three events

The PGA Tour has reversed course and announced the cancellation of The Players as well as the next three events on the schedule.

Less than three hours before the Tour issued its full-stop order, officials had sent out a comprehensive operations plan for the final three rounds at TPC Sawgrass. So, what changed?

“With everyone and all sports canceling they had no choice,” said one player late on March 12.

Following the NBA’s lead, the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the NHL and MLS suspended play and MLB pushed its opening day back two weeks. The LPGA also postponed its next three events, including the year’s first major.

It was an island the Tour simply couldn’t justify and even after two surreal days across sport and society, the scene early on March 13 was borderline apocalyptic.

Troy Merritt was one of the first players to arrive at TPC Sawgrass for what was supposed to be the second round. He wandered around in the pre-dawn darkness for a moment looking for his caddie and trying to process his next move. “I just don’t know what to do,” he said.

Merritt wasn’t alone. One by one players came to collect their golf bags and clean out their lockers and to prepare for an extremely uncertain future.

“The optics of it, even if we are being told we are fine to play, it just doesn’t look good if we are the only sports organization playing compared to other organizations,” Billy Horschel said. “It just doesn’t look good.”

Monahan: 'This is our Super Bowl ... it's a really hard decision'

Monahan: 'This is our Super Bowl ... it's a really hard decision'

Less than 24 hours after telling the assembled media that the Tour planned to carry on, the commissioner found himself back in the makeshift interview room looking like a man who hadn’t slept. He acknowledged the optics of playing, even without fans, on Friday weren’t great and also said players had voiced safety concerns.

“While we wanted to do everything we could to play our Super Bowl, we also wanted to be smart and rational,” the weary commissioner explained. “To cancel it is a really hard decision. It's gut-wrenching. When you're affecting so many people's livelihoods, that weighs heavily on you.”

The commissioner looked like a man who had just endured a difficult 24 hours and he was also very much aware that the tough decisions were just starting to be made when he noticed a reporter scrambling out of the tent with a shell-shocked expression.

“Come on, it’s not that bad,” Monahan offered with a weak smile.

It was pretty bad. It would be two months before the Tour would start playing again and, all total, 11 events were either canceled or postponed, including The Open Championship and Ryder Cup, but the commissioner is renowned for embracing the long view.

Or maybe Monahan just hoped that after one of the most difficult 24 hours in circuit history, things could only get better.