PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There was nothing normal about Thursday at The Players and that was obvious from day's earliest hours.
And Wednesday night's latest.
For PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, Thursday began following an eventful few hours of debate and double checking. At 11:11 p.m. ET Wednesday, the Tour sent players a text message that was odd to the extreme.
“We got a text from the Tour saying to plan on playing Round 1 as scheduled, which was, obviously that's not sent every Thursday,” Jordan Spieth shrugged.
And that was just the beginning of a surreal day.
Players went out early at TPC Sawgrass on schedule and fans gathered at traditional spots, albeit in noticeably smaller groups. The Tour’s decision to play on, despite growing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, prompted more than a few double takes even from within its own circles.
“What about all these people, standing next to each other, breathing on each other, handing us their hat to sign. I thought I’d wake up this morning to a different tune and that spurred that tongue-in-cheek tweet,” said Lucas Glover, who took a light-hearted jab at the circuit on social media for allowing fans on the property. “That’s my way of disagreeing with something is try to be funny about it.”
On Wednesday, NBA fans witnessed a similarly surreal scene at the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game, when both teams were pulled off the court and spectators were told the game was cancelled. A day later, Texas and Texas Tech players were pulled off the floor at the Big 12 basketball tournament for health reasons. And hours later, the NCAA cancelled all of its winter and spring championships, including the men's and women's basketball tournaments.
On Friday at TPC Sawgrass, a golf course built to serve as a stadium will be eerily quiet for the final three rounds after Monahan announced at noon that fans would not be allowed the rest of the week.
“I think it will be weird and it will be a little spooky out there playing, especially if you were to get paired with Phil [Mickelson] or something and it's totally empty; that would be weird,” Patrick Cantlay said.
Weird really doesn’t touch what’s on tap for the next three days.
The Tour has played rounds without fans before. Just last fall, the final round of the Zozo Championship was technically played without fans, and that ended with Tiger Woods 82nd Tour victory to tie the all-time record. But this will be three rounds on a course that’s normally brimming with raucous crowds.
Although the Tour might have moved a little slower than some would have liked, the decision to carry on without fans was applauded by some pros.
“I've never played a Tour event like we are going to play tomorrow with no fans,” Mickelson said. “I feel bad for the people here that have supported this tournament for so many decades to not be able to come on out. But this is a pretty serious thing that we need to do all we can to make sure that people don't lose lives.”
Monahan also announced that the next three events, including the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in two weeks in Austin, Texas, will be played without fans, although there are some who were skeptical that the Tour would continue to play, as nearly every other professional sport was suspending action.
“If this was any other event, what would have been the message?” Glover asked. “I don’t know. I’m not in those offices. Don’t want to be, frankly. But you have to protect the fans.”
It was a measure of how surreal Opening Day at the circuit’s flagship event was that some players spent the round waiting to be stopped.
“None of us would have been surprised to hear a [play halting] horn go off in the middle of the round,” Graeme McDowell said.
In times of crisis, sports normally provides a refuge, a reprieve from the never-ending headlines that paint an increasingly concerning picture. On Thursday, that sanctuary was shattered by a virus that promises to impact every corner of society.
For the players who wearily waved to fans from their fairway safe space, it was a reminder that they play a game.
“That’s the least of our problems right now,” said Francesco Molinari, when asked how travel restrictions could impact his schedule. “Golf is really secondary right now.”
McDowell was even more reflective when he was asked how strange it will be to perform before an empty stadium the rest of the week.
“The word to me is just insignificant; sport is insignificant in comparison to what we're dealing with,” he said. “You're so insulated and in the moment and think, 'Well this is such a major golf tournament. This is our working environment. And this is what we practice and play for.' But we're talking about a major global problem and at the end of the day professional sport is – it means nothing.”
There was nothing normal about Thursday at The Players.