On Sept. 21, 2001, Mike Piazza led the New York Mets to a 3–2 come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Braves with an eighth-inning home run to cap one of the most memorable and emotional nights in American sports history.
It was the first baseball game in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and is still celebrated as a return to something approaching normal during a time when nothing felt normal. It’s an iconic moment in U.S. history, but it wasn’t the first sports event played in the aftermath of the attack.
A day earlier on Sept. 20, the PGA Tour returned to action not far from another scar left by the terrorists' actions.
“You could almost see the crash site from where we played. It was chilling,” remembered Olin Browne, who tied for 18th at the 2001 Marconi Pennsylvania Classic. “We had just been attacked for the first time on American soil since World War II and it was a weird feeling.”
Laurel Valley Golf Club, site of the ’01 Pennsylvania Classic, was located just a few miles from Stonycreek Township where the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed.
It was a surreal scene when play restarted soon after and near to the 9/11 attacks. And although not a perfect comparison, "surreal" could also describe what we'll witness when play restarts in June at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
As the PGA Tour wrestles with exactly what golf will look like when competition resumes, the ’01 Pennsylvania Classic provides a snapshot of what players might experience.
“Getting on an airplane, which was empty, to fly up there was surreal,” recalled Tripp Isenhour, a former-Tour-player-turned-Golf-Channel-analyst. “That was definitely an experience. It was a somber mood. The fact we were playing just miles from where the plane crashed threw even more gravity on it.”
If play begins again at Colonial in June players should anticipate similar moments at the airport, at the rental car counter and certainly at the golf course, which will include no fans for at least the first four events.
“The similarities are, am I safe? Is my family going to be OK? That’s the thing about this virus, you can die from this thing. Our safety had been taken with 9/11 and our safety has been taken away from us now,” said Billy Andrade, who tied for 33rd at Laurel Valley.
A lengthy quarantine didn’t follow the 9/11 attacks, but the lengths to which everyday life was altered then and has been now are similar.
“My only experience with anything like this would be the first few tournaments following 9/11,” said Andy Pazder, the Tour’s chief tournament and competitions officer. “We had players that were uneasy about air travel. That's one of the beauties of being a PGA Tour member; you're an independent contractor. You're not required to be at any PGA Tour event. They may or may not feel comfortable. But that's an individual player decision.”
But then skipping the ’01 Pennsylvania Classic wasn’t really an option for most players, much like skipping the Charles Schwab Challenge, whenever it’s played, probably isn't a consideration.
“I was always going to play [in 2001]. If I was in the field at Colonial I’d be playing there as well,” Steve Flesch said. “I never thought about not playing Pennsylvania.”
There are limits to the similarities between the events, most notably the idea that sports would carry on following the 9/11 attacks. There will be sports after the coronavirus shutdown eases, but what that looks like is wildly uncertain.
It remains unclear when fans will be allowed back at Tour events and in stadiums, and the circuit continues to work with health officials on testing protocols when play resumes. Social distancing is now a mandated way of life.
“The whole country just shut down [after 9/11]. Air travel, everything just stopped. But I think this supersedes [the 9/11 attacks] because you have to treat everybody like they have the virus,” said Flesch, who opened In 69-67 at Laurel Valley before finishing tied for 22nd place. “Everything about the game of golf changes. You walk on the first tee and shake hands, you see them on the range or the equipment trailer, it’s about the camaraderie. Now it’s like, hands off. Before it was a threat to the country; this is a threat to everyone.”
In simplest terms, both moments in history changed the world and certainly altered the sports landscape, but the difference between life after 9/11 and what players are expecting in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown is that, at least in retrospect, there wasn’t the level of uncertainty following the attacks that COVID-19 has caused.
“To come back without a vaccine is almost like playing Russian roulette. You’ve got people cooking your food at the course, the locker rooms that aren’t very spacious. That first tee at Colonial is about as big as two king-sized beds,” Andrade said. “All it takes is one person in any sport [to test positive for coronavirus] then everything shuts down again.”
The common theme for both events is the uncertainty and Colonial will undoubtedly have a similarly bizarre feel. But the biggest difference is, when Piazza launched his game-winning home run the stadium erupted for a collective celebration. Perhaps golf’s return will ignite similar emotions, only the high-fives and hugs will be metaphorical.