The PGA Tour welcomes fans back this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and if it’s not exactly the “Greatest Show on Grass,” at least it will be a show.
Officials plan to allow about 5,000 fans a day on property at TPC Scottsdale, which is about a gazillion less than what they customarily welcome.
“Relative to how the tournament normally plays, I think it will feel like there's no one out there,” Xander Schauffele said. “Normally, a Saturday's 250,000 to 275,000 fans out there and cutting that down to 5,000 fans blocked off in certain areas, I'm pretty sure most of the players are going to feel safe.”
Much like it did when golf was among the first sports to return to competition last June, the game’s flex is unique in the age of COVID-19. Acres of open space and a sprawling playing field give the circuit room to take this much-anticipated next step and as Schauffele pointed out, TPC Scottsdale is the perfect testing ground.
The tournament set attendance records in 2018 with 719,179 fans for the week and that included 216,818 for Saturday’s third round. But if the relative limited number of fans this week may seem low, consider what this could mean for the Tour.
The gates initially opened back up last November at the Vivint Houston Open with about 2,000 fans a day and the Mayakoba Golf Classic also allowed a limited number of fans. But those moves were stalled by the second wave of the pandemic and even as the Tour celebrates its return to something approaching normal there are warning signs everywhere.
Two weeks after the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the Tour closes out the West Coast swing at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles where players were recently informed that not only will there be no fans at Riviera Country Club but because of intensified COVID-19 protocols in Los Angeles County, players won’t even be allowed to be joined by their wife or significant other at the event.
The Tour also continues to monitor evolving travel restrictions because of the pandemic even as upcoming Florida swing events prepare to welcome back fans, including The Players Championship, which is significant for a number of reasons but mostly because of what a return to normal at TPC Sawgrass could symbolically mean.
It was at last year’s Players Championship when the Tour came to a halt because of the pandemic and it was the Stadium Course that last hosted a meaningful number of fans on Thursday before everything changed.
“I had no idea how long it was going to go,” Justin Thomas said this week when asked to recall his thoughts from last year’s Players. “Myself and all of us have never experienced anything like it. It's crazy. If you would have told me that we'd be testing here at the Phoenix Open in 2021 and going to be testing for who knows how many more months, I would have told you you're crazy.”
There are a lot of things that would have seemed crazy last March that have become part of everyday life, like officials in Phoenix celebrating 5,000 fans at the turnstile. In the past that wouldn’t have been enough to fill the massive grandstand the rings the raucous 16th hole.
The return of even a limited number fans is huge for the bottom line of individual tournaments, but this goes well beyond the gate. Like the Tour’s return to competition in June, this week’s event will be hyper-analyzed by every other sport looking to bring back fans.
“I'm looking forward to welcoming fans back,” Rory McIlroy said. “It's going to be gradual; I don't think anything's going to be at capacity or 100 percent for a while, but the fact that Phoenix is going to have 5,000, maybe the Florida events might have a little bit more. Gradually welcoming people back as the vaccine gets rolled out and we try to get back into a more normal world, I think it's a good thing.”
There is a touch of irony that the circuit begins a move back toward something normal at TPC Scottsdale, which is far from normal in Tour circles. Billed the “Greatest Show on Grass” because of its fans, this week’s Phoenix Open will still be a show but for less raucous reasons.