Late last Sunday a small group adjacent Sedgefield Country Club’s 18th green broke a silence that had gripped the PGA Tour since March 12 and the last day fans were allowed at tournaments.
Unlike the first round at The Players when fans flooded TPC Sawgrass blissfully unaware of how quickly a pandemic would alter every aspect of life and sports, those allowed to watch last week’s Wyndham Championship were limited in number and access.
In fact, they really weren’t “fans” so much as they were sponsors and supporters of the tournament, but the applause and cheers sounded the same.
“It’s better than nothing and it allowed us to give a special thank you to Wyndham and all the key sponsors who stayed with us,” said Mark Brazil, the Wyndham Championship tournament director. “It wasn’t the 5,000 we planned on a day but I think the Tour has made the right call as far as fans go.”
Brazil built three hospitality-style tents adjacent to the 18th green to accommodate what the Tour has dubbed a “hosted experience.” What that means varies wildly from market to market depending on local and state COVID-19 regulations, but at the Wyndham it meant that 25 guests were allowed to gather outside and 10 were allowed inside the tents.
If that’s not exactly standing room only consider that the Tour has been holding events without any fans or sponsor hospitality since its restart in early June. That includes no pro-ams which produces the lion’s share of a tournament’s operating budget.
According to a recent report on MorningRead.com, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told his staff that the loss of hospitality and pro-am income will add up to more than $90 million in loss revenue by the end of the year, and recent moves by the USGA and Augusta National to play the U.S. Open and Masters without fans is a sign that a return to normal is not imminent.
But as both the NFL and college football continue to make plans for at least a limited number of fans at games this fall the Tour’s “hosted experiences” are a crucial first step toward reopening the gates.
“The Tour realized this is an easy one and a layup,” Brazil said. “We can control it and we can social distance. They weren’t allowed on the course, but there was a little bit of golf to be watched on No. 18.”
The Tour announced the plan for “hosted experiences” last month along with a move to resume the honorary observer program. The plan is to allow events up to 50 guests on tournament days who will have restricted access and won’t be allowed to walk the golf course. The honorary observer program, which began at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, includes 16 two-person groups who are allowed to walk the course but only outside the rope line and they must follow social distancing guidelines.
In many ways the programs were designed to give a glimpse into how the Tour plans to reintroduce the crucial elements of a tournament’s financial structure. There has been a reluctance in some Tour circles to allow fans back on property and restart pro-ams. Some players even suggested they would consider opting out over virus concerns if fans were allowed back too soon.
For the Tour it’s a fine line between maintaining a safe environment, which for over two months has become the model while other sports struggle with outbreaks and participation concerns, and getting back to the business of golf tournaments.
The next logical step would be a return of Tuesday and Wednesday pro-ams, and the circuit already has a track record that should help convince some of its more reluctant members. Both the PGA Tour Champions and the Korn Ferry Tour have been holding pro-ams since those circuits restarted their schedules with no major issues.
Depending on the success of the “hosted experiences,” which are scheduled for next week’s BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, it’s also reasonable to consider expanding that program beyond 50 guests.
But the central question remains: when will fans be allowed back?
Beyond the financial impact to individual tournaments, which is very real, there is also a profound impact on the competition itself. Players have repeatedly said that it’s not the same without the cheer of a crowd.
“I've actually really struggled with not having fans out. I've really missed it, plain and simple,” Paul Casey said at the PGA Championship. “I've felt I've not been able to sort of just get the excitement going, lacking energy and all that goes with having fans at a sporting event at a golf tournament, I just genuinely miss it.”
Technically the group who watched Sunday’s finish at Sedgefield weren’t fans and compared to what players are accustomed to they didn’t provide much of a cheer, but for golf it was a crucial first step.