Tour Confidential: Will the fan-free Masters impact the TV-viewing experience?

Justin Thomas

Fans on top of players will not take place at the 2020 Masters.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss a fanless Masters experience, Brooks Koepka’s public statements and a match play rules controversy.

Augusta National announced it will conduct the 2020 Masters without fans, on account of the coronavirus. In a statement, club chairman Fred Ridley called the decision necessary but also “deeply disappointing.” Given that the Masters is synonymous with Sunday roars, how much, if at all, will the absence of spectators impact the experience of watching the Masters on TV?

Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): Boy, it’s gonna be even quieter than normal. Quieter than quiet. With proper boom mic work, though, I think we’ll get clued in to a lot of the player strategy, which is always great at Augusta. Should be crystal clear!

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@AlanShipnuck): By then we’ll have had five months of tournament golf without fans, including two majors, so it’ll be old hat. But there is an intimacy at the Masters that will be missed — think about those fans right behind the green at 7, or the tee at 12, or 16, or the amphitheater around 18 green. But it will be awesome to see Augusta National uncluttered. The course is going to look so pure.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): I think it will be extremely strange, even with all the experience we’ll have had by then with fan-free events. With the possible exception of the Ryder Cup, roars help define the Masters more than any other tournament. The sounds are so familiar that longtime viewers can tell a birdie roar from an eagle roar. And we’re all familiar with the TV experience of hearing a roar during the broadcast, then waiting at the edge of our seats to see the highlight of what brought it on. So yeah, very weird. Unbelievably great that the tournament is happening. But it will still be strange.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: It’s just so fitting that this golf year will end in this way, completely the opposite of what millions experienced last year. BUT it will surely be a memorable Masters and therefore a good TV show.

World No. 318 (!) Jim Herman fired a final-round 63 to win the Wyndham Championship on Sunday. Herman became the fifth player ranked outside 200 in the world to win on Tour this year (excluding opposite-field events). What does that stat tell you about the state of the Tour in 2020?

Zak: I think it tells you that there are levels to pro golf, and sometimes they just don’t matter. There’s the level of elite pros in the top 30, who decide generations of legacy, and then there are countless others all vying for a precious piece of the millions. The line between those levels is as blurred as ever. 

Shipnuck: It was awesome to watch that old dog get it done hitting all manner of crafty shots. What a clinic in closing! There are hundreds and hundreds of guys who can shoot that low … occasionally. It gives you more appreciation for the top players that they produce that kind of golf so regularly.

Sens: Yet another reminder of how deep the talent runs in professional golf, and how quickly everything can change. How a switch can flip and suddenly a guy who looked lost morphs into a world beater for the week. The shifts don’t just come as a surprise to us fans. You could tell from Herman’s post-round interview what an emotional swing this was.

Bamberger: Jim’s win tells more about Jim than the Tour. In decades of golf-watching I cannot think of another career like his.

Jim Herman played his final 24 holes in 12 under par (despite a bogey) at the Wyndham Championship.

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The U.S. Amateur, where Tyler Strafaci edged Ollie Osborne 1 up at wild and wondrous Bandon Dunes, was a blast to watch. The topsy-turvy layouts at Bandon Dunes (match play) and Bandon Trails (stroke play) required players to hit all kind of shots — and in all kinds of conditions. As the 36-hole final progressed Sunday, the fog grew so thick that players struggled to see their tee shots. Any quibbles with the match continuing in such a soupy haze?       

Zak: At first I thought no. But then watching Strafaci struggle so much with his lines and distances down the stretch I changed my mind. Though I think at any point he likely could have made a fuss about it. In the end, you’ve been on this course all week. You know it well. You gotta make good swings.

Sens: Not ideal but no quibbles. They played some of the other days in 40-mile-an-hour winds. This is golf in the elements.  And both players were dealing with the same conditions. So it goes. You want a guarantee of golf in sunny stillness? Play it in a dome.

Bamberger: The game came out of the fog and the haar and the mist and the ocean. No quibbles, the opposite.

Segundo Oliva Pinto, a rising junior who just transferred to Arkansas, lost his quarterfinal match at the U.S. Amateur in stunning fashion when his caddie, a local looper Pinto had hired for the week, touched the sand in a bunker on the 18th hole, leading to an automatic loss of hole and ultimately loss of match. Pinto accepted the defeat graciously but it was a cruel way to be ousted. Related question (whether or not it would have applied in the aforementioned scenario): Should the rules allow players to waive a penalty on their opponent if they feel said penalty is too harsh?

Zak: This is tricky. Because it would have been nice for Strafaci (the benefactor of that ruling) to say, “You know what, that didn’t help you at all.” But then again, if we allow players to waive a penalty, where does that end? Can players play with 15 clubs for six holes if their good buddy they’re competing against is feeling generous? I think it’s a somewhat slippery slope that is avoided simply with: “don’t break the rules.”

Shipnuck: It’s a nice thought but would lead to all manner of anarchy. The rules have to be the rules. Period.

Sens: I had a related thought as this incident went down and I remain torn on the question. I get the purist argument, that rules are rules and to try to parse them in any fashion is a slippery slope. But would it really be so entirely unreasonable for there to be a judgment call brought to bear on a situation like this? Where an official could be brought in to assess the situation and ask, did this really have a material influence on the result? If it had zero impact, is loss of hole really the fairest consequence? I realize that would be tricky. But judgment calls apply in other rulings. Why is it entirely out of the realm of reason for them to apply in a situation like this?

Bamberger: The whole thing is a shame. Of course the caddie should be better trained. In casual golf, you could waive, of course, such a violation by a caddie. Not by a player. At this level, it had to be enforced.

Brooks Koepka said last week that he and Dustin Johnson are not as close as many golf fans believe them to be. “You guys make your own stories,” he told reporters. Koepka added that Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas’ perceived bond also “gets blown out too much … You guys overplay a lot of things.” What’s your read on Koepka’s remarks?

Zak: Koepka isn’t often a fan of storylines. He likes things the way he sees them. And now that he’s won a bunch of big events, he feels worthy of sharing every damn opinion he has. He’s totally entitled to that, to be sure. He should just be mindful to not undo his previous remarks, like those times where he’s said how significant his friendship with DJ was. 

Shipnuck: Well, they sure ate a lot of meals together and spent a ton of time in the gym together for non-friends. This feels like spin from Brooks, trying to walk back remarks about DJ that weren’t a great look after Brooks’s Sunday follies at the PGA.

Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka playing a practice round at Royal Portrush in 2019.

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Sens: Alan and Sean are spot-on here. No doubt the media digs in, repeats and overplays endless numbers of stories. But for Koepka to talk now as if the friendship narrative was some kind of fake news ignores the way he described reality in the past.

Bamberger: Koepka obviously has had a falling out with him and is assigning blame in the wrong place. #humannature

Our Alan Bastable lobbied for a million-dollar, made-for-TV match pitting average weekend hackers, with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the role of captains who the players could call as “lifelines” to hit a handful of shots throughout the match. Would you tune in to such an exhibition?

Zak: If you promised me that Woods and Mickelson would coach their teammates constantly, then we’d all learn a helluva lot about this game. Phil saying, “Here, I’ll show you” as he flops it to two feet would be wildly entertaining.

Shipnuck: This might be the best idea I’ve ever heard. Related: Boss, can I have a raise?

Sens: Hey, it’s a pandemic. I’ll watch anything.

Bamberger: Duffers will choke for $10, let alone $1 million. I’m watching.

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