PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – At 8 a.m. ET Friday, second-round play of the $15 million Players Championship should have been underway on a glorious, sun-drenched morning here at TPC Sawgrass. Instead, into a packed interview room walked PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, head down, a thick binder in his left hand, a Players pin on the lapel of his blue sport coat.
It was Monahan’s third time addressing the media this week – and, ominously, only one of those sessions had been previously scheduled.
There seemed an increased urgency with each briefing. On Tuesday, with the sports world beginning to grapple with the rapidly escalating situation involving the coronavirus (COVID-19), Monahan put on a brave face, saying that the Tour and its flagship event were “full steam ahead.” That comment subjected Tour brass to criticism of tone-deafness, but at the time they could deflect – they were simply relying on recommendations from the CDC and World Health Organization, and even President Donald Trump. And besides, no other major U.S. sports league had pushed the panic button, postponing play. At least not yet.
But the Tour’s delayed response was a microcosm of the country at large – first calm, then cautious, then thrust into an all-out crisis. Declared a global pandemic, the coronavirus forced circumstances to radically change. Businesses shuttered. Schools closed. Sporting events were canceled, seasons put on hold. College seniors’ dreams of going out on top, as an NCAA champion, were dashed.
The tipping point came Wednesday night, when an NBA player tested positive for the virus. The most arresting image of the week was a shot of a team’s head medical director sprinting out onto the court. Within minutes the teams headed back into the locker room to be quarantined. Fans filed out of the arena. And just like that, the NBA season was paused for at least the next 30 days.
Others soon followed. Hockey. Tennis. Soccer. The NCAA’s March Madness. Even the XFL. Golf was alone on an island as small as Sawgrass’ 17th green, and it became abundantly clear that it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – proceed.
And so Thursday night, with the opening round nearly complete, the show finally stopped. In a late-night text to players, the Tour announced that The Players and at least the next three tournaments were canceled. Monahan and Co. had eventually reached the right decision – even if it arrived a few days late.
“I’m a fighter,” Monahan said. “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 seems to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.”
They called it a day, a week, and now at least a month, after the decision Friday that Augusta National was postponing the Masters Tournament. That leaves golf and every other sport in an unsettling position, uncertain when they’ll return to competition.
Still, the ramifications of even 18 holes here at TPC Sawgrass could be far-reaching. With more than 200,000 fans expected to stream through the gates, there’ll certainly be a significant, multilayered economic impact. That’ll play out over the coming days, weeks, months. Thursday’s opening round produced a smaller but nonetheless passionate crowd, a group clearly undeterred by warnings from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to avoid large gatherings. An autograph ban was instituted, and players seemed cognizant of spacing. They walked in the middle of the spectator rope line, to limit their interaction with fans, and many stuffed their hands in their pockets and occasionally ambled over to a hand-sanitizing station.
Midway through the first round the Tour announced that only “essential personnel” would be allowed on-site for the remainder of The Players (as well as the next three Tour stops), and the hearty souls who remained were disappointed by what they viewed as the media’s overreaction, the Tour’s overreaction, the country’s overreaction. Standing in a pack behind the ninth tee, oblivious to the pleas for social distancing, one local fan griped of his now useless weekend tickets: “Should be, buyer beware.” Rory McIlroy didn’t share that sentiment: “Someone said to me, ‘Today’s overreaction could look like tomorrow’s underreaction.’ So we’ve just got to take it day by day and see where this thing goes.”
And it was obvious where this thing was headed. After his first round, McIlroy called for all players and caddies to be tested for the virus if they were to continue playing. The situation continued to escalate, in real time. There were more closures: schools, museums, Disney World. Still, the Tour soldiered on, releasing another update at 6:45 p.m. local time – a detailed operations plan for the next three rounds – but it seemed inevitable that they’d need to pack up, too. Around TPC Sawgrass, Monahan had spoken to international players who worried about traveling back home and being separated from their families. C.T. Pan had withdrawn because of the threat of the coronavirus spreading. There might have been only one confirmed case in St. Johns County, but the lack of available testing increased the likelihood that the virus had hit here, too, and they just didn’t know it yet.
Young, fit Tour players aren’t the most vulnerable demographic, but that mattered little. Even without symptoms they could carry the virus and pass it on to others. After all, these players were on the same flights, in the same hotels, in the same locker room and player dining. Never mind an NBA locker room of a few dozen. Here were officials and workers and 144 players all passing through the same small area, using the same facilities.
Why did that matter? Because they’re husbands and fathers and sons. Because Sergio Garcia’s wife is pregnant. Because McIlroy’s mother has respiratory issues. Because Jon Rahm’s grandmother is in a nursery home and his wife asthmatic.
“I have a responsibility to do my part to try not to spread it,” Rahm said. “I think this was the most sensible thing to do right now.”
And so with nowhere to go, with nothing to play for, the world’s best players are basically self-quarantining for the next few weeks and possibly even months. They’re used to taking time off to nurse injuries. Some even take an extended hiatus around the holidays. But never like this, not at the beginning of the championship season, with their next start date uncertain.
They wondered aloud: Should they give their body a rest? Do all of the guys in Jupiter hook up for weekly money games? Will they have time to implement swing changes? They’ll all keep training and playing and practicing ... but for what?
“That’s the crazy situation all of us are in,” Billy Horschel said. “When do we start back up? When is it OK to start back up? There are so many questions that need to be answered right now, and there’s no answers to that. No one can say.”
Dressed in workout clothes and backward hats, players rolled up to the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in their courtesy cars, dutifully answered questions and then, awkwardly, said goodbye. We’ll see you ... next month? This summer? “Hopefully sometime this year,” Marc Leishman said ruefully.
McIlroy was one of the first to arrive Friday, after waking up at 5:30 a.m. to learn that The Players – the Tour’s Super Bowl, one of the five biggest tournaments in golf – was canceled and the Tour season put on hold. His mind almost immediately drifted to Monahan. “Jay didn’t sleep the night before last, up trying to make this decision and trying to make the call, trying to do what’s right for the tournament, trying to do what’s right for the Tour, the players, the spectators, sponsors, media, everyone,” McIlroy said.
“I drove past his house this morning on the way from the hotel here and just looked like, Geez, it’s been a stressful week for him.”
Monahan wasn’t looking for sympathy. Not at an unprecedented time like this. “Who cares about my sleep,” he said. “But I haven’t gotten much.”
The stress and strain of the past few days was apparent on his face as he said all the right things Friday morning:
That they didn’t have any regrets.
That it was incredibly disappointing.
That they tried to be as measured and thoughtful as possible.
That the health and safety of the players, fans, media and partners – everyone in the Tour’s “ecosystem” – was the No. 1 priority.
And that, finally, it was time to pack up their staff bags and go home for the foreseeable future.
“To cancel it is a really hard decision,” he said. “It’s gut-wrenching. When you’re affecting so many people’s livelihoods, that weighs heavily on you. I look out at everybody here: What are we all doing over the next five weeks? And that has to weigh heavily on you; it did weigh heavily on me, and it will weigh heavily on me.”
There were no further questions left in the interview room, and a few reporters in the back row turned to exit. Over the next few hours, at an empty TPC Sawgrass, Monahan would make stop after stop with his other broadcast partners to explain the timing of this move, to justify his past decisions, to look ahead to an uncertain future.
But first, Monahan raised a finger and interjected: “Can I say one more thing?”
And in his final remarks in the interview he’d been dreading, he encouraged everyone to get outside and play golf. To support the industry. To use the game to inspire others in a challenging situation.
It was a grim reminder.
All of a sudden, there’d be plenty of free time.