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'It's a scary time': How an unforgettable day played out at TPC Sawgrass

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On a day unlike any other in PGA Tour history, Bubba Watson entered the scoring building at TPC Sawgrass and received word that he needed to be tested.

No, not that type of test.

A random drug test. As part of the PGA Tour’s anti-doping program.

“I just told the doctor: ‘Hey, we’re worried about the wrong things right now,’” Watson said. “‘Let’s save that lab for something else.”

The Players Championship: Full-field scores | Full coverage

It was a moment of levity in what is an increasingly serious situation. Sporting events large and small have been canceled all over the world, but 144 of the game’s best were notified just before midnight Wednesday that Round 1 of The Players Championship would be played “as scheduled.” That text message alone was ominous, and midway through the opening round of its flagship event, the Tour called a midday news conference with commissioner Jay Monahan. Two days earlier, Monahan had expressed confidence that his tour would continue “full speed ahead.” Forty-eight hours later, the sports world was in a vastly different place.

Many sports leagues were taking drastic measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), closing arenas and canceling championships and delaying the starts of seasons. And Thursday, in what he described as a “fluid and dynamic situation,” Monahan reversed course by announcing that no fans will be permitted on-site for the remainder of The Players, and for at least the next three tournaments, through the Valero Texas Open. Only “essential personnel” will be allowed through the gates beginning Friday, but it’s not exactly going to be a ghost town around here – including media, caddies, swing coaches, scoring volunteers, greenskeepers, rules officials and other support staff, there’s still expected to be roughly 1,500 to 2,000 people on property.  

Monahan’s update might not be the last of the week, either. As of this writing, the Tour is one of the only major sports leagues still competing. Monahan justified that decision thusly: Because golf is an outdoor sport played over 400 acres, players and caddies can practice social distancing. Maybe so, but those same players and caddies are also mingling in the same locker room, lounging in the same family dining, staying in the same hotels, touching the same flagsticks and water coolers and snack tables. 

“It’s a scary time,” Rory McIlroy said.

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"I think for us to keep playing on Tour," McIlrroy said, "all the Tour players and people that are involved need to get tested and make sure that no one’s got it."

For now, at least, the show continues, a Players Championship that is, quite literally, now only for the players. Tour rounds have been contested without fans before – including as recently as last fall, for the final round of the Zozo Championship won by Tiger Woods – but never for an extended period of time and never because of a global pandemic.

Indeed, these are strange, unprecedented times, and that uncertainty swirled before the start of the first round here – a round that some expected could be called off at any point Thursday. After listening to Monahan’s lunchtime address, McIlroy called the start “flat.” Webb Simpson had trouble focusing and settling into the flow of the round, waiting for another announcement. Graeme McDowell expected players to be hauled off the course. Making his 27th appearance at TPC Sawgrass, Phil Mickelson said Thursday’s opener was unlike any he’s experienced here. “Different,” he said. “There’s not as many people as normal.” Typically one of the most fan-friendly players on Tour, Mickelson has been conscientious about whom he interacts with this week. “I’m trying all I can to not touch people, to clean my hands with Purell or soap and water,” he said. “I’m not worried about myself, but I don’t want to infect anybody.”

Tour officials set up more than 120 hand-sanitizing stations around the course, along with a sticker reading HEALTHY HANDS START HERE. Prior to the start of the first round, the Tour instituted an autograph ban. Spectator rope lines from green to tee seemed wider, giving players a little more breathing room. There were other subtle signs of apprehension – including the half-empty hospitality tents – but for the most part fans seemed to carry on as usual. Infants rolled on blankets. Women chatted and sunbathed on the hill near the 17th green. Men skipped work to sip on vodka and lemonade from their commemorative Players glasses.

Social distancing be damned, spectators still crammed behind the tees, standing shoulder to shoulder, hot and sweaty, cellphones up, ready to capture the swings of the world’s best. Once McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka rolled through, two fans were thrilled they were so close to the action – and also disappointed that’d be their last looks of the week.

Sound of silence: Players in an empty Stadium

There was nothing normal about Thursday at The Players. And with no fans allowed for at least the next three weeks, the abnormal will temporarily become the new normal.

“Been here since daylight,” said Ken Haney, a 67-year-old from Tennessee.

And you weren’t turned off by the global threat?

“Not at all,” he said.

But have you paid closer attention to those around you?

“I joked with a couple who started coughing: We’re little old men, don’t breathe on us!

And what about the Tour announcement, that fans won’t be allowed the rest of the week?

“There’s being cautious, and there’s fear-mongering,” he said.

And what’s this? “Fear-mongering,” he said.

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“I could have it and have no symptoms," he said. "You could have it. Any of us. And just like that you’ve got 500 people who need to be quarantined.”

“It’s the wrong move, 100 percent,” said a local 33-year-old who asked not to be identified. “We wait 51 weeks a year for this. They don’t want to sign autographs? So what? It’s buyer beware.”

Players in the early wave noticed the awkward vibe and learned of the new fan-free policy during their round. Some were notified by the police officer walking with their group. Others saw the message on one of the massive electronic leaderboards. Jordan Spieth heard a few spectators tell his group, “We’re going to miss you guys this weekend!” And Spieth just figured it was because they were all over par for the day, potentially headed for a missed cut. “Originally we thought that was kind of rude,” he said, laughing. “I was like, Man, we’ve got some golf left!” 

A few laughs then gave way to the realization that everyone’s world was about to be significantly disrupted for the foreseeable future. That uncertainty has engulfed not just The Players, but the entire sport. 

After the round, after his drug test, Watson’s head was still spinning. He’s admittedly a germaphobe, and in real time he was processing all of the relevant questions: Should he head home for a few days, or should he refrain from traveling? How should he limit his contact with others? What happens if he or one of his co-workers gets sick? 

“I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” Watson said. “You hear about this in the history books. But it’s new to all of us. We’re all learning it together.”

And that wasn’t any more comforting.