tpc sawgrass no. 17

One year later: Inside the surreal week at TPC Sawgrass when golf shut down

The end of the week at the 2020 Players Championship looked starkly different from how it had began.

Getty Images

Monday March 9, 2020, was a monumental day for the PGA Tour. In addition to welcoming golfers to TPC Sawgrass, beginning the Tour’s week in the spotlight, Tour officials announced a new media rights deal that would significantly expand their content offerings. To celebrate the occasion, Tour leadership was on a media tour in New York City.

Among the stops was an appearance by Jay Monahan on CNBC’s roundtable show Squawk Box. Monahan was there to endorse the new deal — but the conversation quickly shifted to talk of a virus taking hold around the world.

Do you have contingency plans in place? How will you handle mass gatherings on the course? What kind of insurance does the Tour have?

Monahan did his best to steer the discussion back to business, but with four hosts surrounding him at the table, he was badly outnumbered.

Then came a question that, at the time, seemed to be outside the range of even the worst-case scenarios.

“If you didn’t play for months on end,” one of the hosts asked, “what would happen?”

“You know, we would cross that bridge when we get there,” Monahan said. “But that would obviously have a very significant impact on a number of people.”

The commissioner then pivoted back to the media-rights deal, thanked the hosts and signed off.

Little did he know that he was on the verge of taking unprecedented action.

Nearly 1,000 miles south in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the outlook felt far less dire. Temperatures were expected to climb into the 70s. The forecast was clear. It was the perfect week for the Tour’s flagship event.

As players arrived at TPC Sawgrass, there was little talk of the virus, or at least, to most, it still didn’t feel like cause for major concern. On Tuesday, as Monahan fielded questions from reporters about the pandemic, he was adamant that the threat to his Tour’s operations was negligible.

“At this point I think everybody is planning on moving forward full speed ahead,” Monahan said. “But also keeping an open eye and an open mind to the information that’s coming their way.”

Cancelations from beyond the golf world were on the Tour’s radar. Just days before, the mega-festival South by Southwest announced it was nixing its event in Austin because of coronavirus concerns. The Tour was scheduled to head to the Lone Star State’s capital in two weeks, for the WGC-Dell Match Play. Again, Monahan expressed confidence that the show would go on.

“We fully expect that the tournament will be held in Austin,” Monahan said. “That tournament is two weeks away. We’re all in and making certain that we’re able to operate that event.”

Tommy Fleetwood signs autographs during a practice round at the 2020 Players Championship.

Getty Images

There were 11 pre-tournament press conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week for some of the biggest names in the field, but most didn’t field a single question about the coronavirus. Those who did were confident that there was little to worry about in regard to their safety and everyone else’s.

The biggest precautions many players were taking was substituting fist bumps for high fives, washing their hands more frequently and limiting the number of autographs they signed so as not to spend too much time in crowds. It was more or less business as usual.

“I’ve done some research on it, and there’s a lot of things you can look at,” Jon Rahm said in his press conference. “From what I hear, the flu is deadlier than this virus.”

As fans scattered across the grounds during practice rounds, there was nary a mask in sight, not surprising given there were just a handful of confirmed cases in Florida. Fan experience areas were open for business and the sun was shining.

Practice rounds are always a laid-back affair on Tour, and Wednesday, March 11, was no different. Players still interacted with fans, the mood among players was light, and the annual caddie competition commenced on the 17th hole as loopers tested their mettle at the famed island green.

As an added bonus, the band The Chainsmokers put on a concert for fans on the 17th hole that evening. Everything was all good.

And then it wasn’t.

Later that night, some 1,200 miles away in Oklahoma City, Okla., the hometown Thunder were preparing to host the Utah Jazz. Fans were packed into the arena as players went through their pre-game warmups.

“Kernkraft 400” by Zombie Nation blared through the loudspeaker to hype the crowd up and the arena’s emcee led a spirited “O-K-C” chant. But just before tip, a team doctor rushed onto the floor and delayed the game.

The doctor first conferred with the referees. Then, the referees held a mid-court conference with the two head coaches, Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder. When the meeting adjourned, the two teams headed back to the locker room.

Just about everyone in Chesapeake Energy Arena was confused. What was the cause for the delay? The public address announcer explained to the fans that the game was delayed until they got confirmation from the league office.

The referees exited the court next, and then the chilling announcement came.

“Fans,” the annoucner said, “due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe. Take your time in leaving the arena tonight and do so in an orderly fashion.”

The crowd was predictably upset and began booing to display their displeasure. Little did they know, Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Covid-19.

The NBA put its season on pause later that evening, and so began a domino effect that raced through the sports world.

Back in Ponte Vedra Beach, Monahan was in the middle of hosting his annual party at his home for sponsors and other VIPs. The turnout was lighter than normal and those that did show up were scheduled to get out of town the next morning, which struck the commissioner as unusual.

When the party ended, Monahan turned his phone on and saw the news about the NBA.

“That was when I knew that we had a bigger and more immediate problem,” Monahan told Golf Channel.

Tour leadership met late that evening and by the time they adjourned, they were convinced the Players could continue.

“The PGA Tour is aware of rapidly changing developments regarding Covid-19,” the Tour said in a press release. “With the information currently available, the Players Championship will continue as scheduled although we will absolutely continue to review recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and local health administrations.”

When dawn broke Thursday morning at TPC Sawgrass, things were eerily normal. Save for a sign banning autographs and high fives, it felt like any other Tour event.

“It felt normal the whole day,” Justin Thomas said. “There was no difference.”

But as the morning progressed — and more and more high-profile events announced shakeups of their own — the Tour announced Monahan would hold his second press conference of the week. In front of the microphone for the second time in three days, Monahan said fans would be barred from the grounds for the remainder of the tournament, as well as at the Valspar, the WGC-Match Play and the Valero Texas Open.

The move was drastic by golf standards but compared to the other adjustments being made in the world, it didn’t feel at all substantial. Later that afternoon, the NCAA announced the cancelation of its post-season tournament while the MLB called off spring training. The NHL was put on pause, too.

All around the country, sports were shutting down.

Inside the ropes of TPC Sawgrass, however, not much had changed. Bombed tee shots, pured irons, holed birdies. Hideki Matsuyama fired the round of the day with a 63, as golf continued on.

Hideki Matsuyama was the leader after 18 holes at TPC Sawgrass, but by day’s end, no one was talking about his dazzling round.

Getty Images

From players (and fans) there was a general disappointment on the decision to bar fans from the grounds, and that was the theme of most post-round scrums. Even in the face of all that was happening in the sports world — and the world at large — some players continued to search for rationalizations on why they should keep playing.

“Selfishly, I’m glad that we’re able to still play,” Justin Thomas said. “This is a little different situation than other sports where we’re outdoors and we don’t have the physical contact and we can take it as cautious as we can.”

But not all players were on board with playing on. On Thursday morning, CT Pan withdrew, citing concerns about the virus. Rory McIlroy, who has long been one of the most vocal players on Tour, took the strongest stance of any player when he was asked what should happen if a player or caddie tested positive.

“We need to shut it down then,” he said. “Today’s overreaction could look like tomorrow’s underreaction.”

Still, golf played on.

The Tour got through the opening round of the Players just as it had hoped, but with shutdowns outside the golf world continuing, golf was increasingly isolated.

At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, the Tour released a plan for the remainder of the week on what personnel would be allowed on site. But the dynamics of the situation were changing rapidly. Then, at 8:30 p.m., came news that really caught the Tour’s attention: Disney World, less than a three-hour drive south, in Orlando, announced that the park would shut down that weekend through the end of the month.

Rory McIlroy was among the last players to finish on Thursday evening.
How golf — yes, golf! — was the last sport standing
By: Dylan Dethier

“When you looked to that moment in time where you have two theme parks that are located between Jacksonville and Tampa cancel,” Monahan said later. “To me that really was the final thing that we had heard that said, ‘You know what, even though we feel like we have a safe environment and we’ve done all the right things, we can’t proceed, and it’s not right to proceed.'”

Inside the Tour’s war room the decision was finally made to shut down. Around 10 p.m. Thursday, players received a text. The remainder of the Players Championship had been canceled and there would be no golf at least through the Valero Texas Open.

The next morning, Monahan held one final press conference for the week as he outlined what went into the decision to finally shutter the Tour’s marquee event. If he looked tired on Thursday, he looked exhausted on Friday. It had no doubt been one of the most hectic weeks of Monahan’s life, and this was the last opportunity he had to speak directly to the media.

“We’re obviously incredibly disappointed to suspend the PGA Tour’s season for our players and our fans,” he said. “I’ve said all along, the health and safety of everyone associated with this organization is our No. 1 priority. We tried to be as thoughtful and measured as possible during this dynamic and challenging time. We took all the steps within our control and felt comfortable proceeding.”

While Monahan was speaking with the media, players arrived at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse to clean out their lockers and head home. At the beginning of the week, this scenario wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. Now, the reality of the situation was setting in.

Jay Monahan speaks to the media about the Tour’s decision to cancel the Players.

Getty Images

“It’s straight out of a movie,” Brendan Steele said. “It’s like when the zombies have taken over. It’s really, really scary.”

Justin Thomas said: “I just didn’t know something like this was even possible. I felt like there was no chance we were going to play the Masters. It’s so soon. And obviously I wanted to, but I didn’t think we were going to, to be perfectly honest.”

His prediction would turn out to be correct. In the weeks that followed, the Masters announced it was postponing until a later date while the Open Championship canceled for the first time since WWII. Golf would not return until early June.

One year after that fateful week, players — and some fans — are back on site at TPC Sawgrass. Masks are a part of daily life on Tour and nasal swabs are a weekly occurrence. But things are slowly trending back toward how they were just more than a year ago.

“It’s the anniversary of where the world really changed, especially the sporting world,” McIlroy said this week. “It’s amazing, and to think that we’re a year into it and we’re still having to do certain things.”

McIlroy added those “certain things” are a small price to pay in the grand scheme. Since golf resumed last June, things have run smoothly compared to many other professional sports. There have been positive tests, sure, but no mass outbreaks that have forced another shutdown.

“It seems like a lifetime ago in many respects,” Monahan said. “Fast forward to today, and I’m extremely pleased to recognize those directly responsible for our response after the Players was canceled, as well as our successful return this week.”

Enjoy the golf.

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF.com, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf.