PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - The Players Championship will go from being one of golf’s best attended events to a sporting ghost town after the PGA Tour on Thursday said it was banning spectators from tournaments because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
The announcement made by commissioner Jay Monahan at high noon was jarring and at odds with the buzz at TPC Sawgrass as the world’s top golfers went about their business while fans cheered and groaned with each shot under clear blue skies.
It was the type of day made for being out on the course watching golf.
But for fans it was likely to be the last golf for some time as the PGA joined every other major sport in North America by taking drastic measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus that has shredded the global sporting calendar.
Widely recognised as golf’s unofficial fifth major, Players Championship attendance, starting with second-round play on Friday, will be limited to players, family members, support staff and media.
The ban will remain in place until just before the April 9-12 Masters at Augusta National where the year’s first major is due to be played.
“It’s going to be surreal. It’s going to be bizarre feeling, especially this event where crowd interaction is such a big key to this golf tournament,” said Graeme McDowell, after the Northern Irishman had turned in an opening round four-under 68.
“But what we’re doing here is insignificant in comparison to what’s happening in the world.”
The scene is sure to be a spooky one with the massive corporate suites that line the magnificent Pete Day layout standing empty.
Concession stands pumping out nine dollar beers and six dollar pretzels on Thursday will be shuttered and quiet.
While golfers will be back at work on Friday competing for a $15 million purse, hundreds of support and concession staff will be without jobs.
“Yep, out of work tomorrow,” Ken Rouw told Reuters, as he manned a concession stand near the 18th green. “This year it is absolutely beautiful here, the weather is perfect, it’s gorgeous but it is quieter. It’s definitely weird.”
For much of the North America sporting scene, weird is about to become the new normal.
The National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer have suspended their seasons while tennis events in Miami and Indian Wells along with women’s ice hockey and the figure skating world championships set for Canada have been cancelled.
Major League Baseball has halted Spring Training and delayed opening day by at least two weeks and “March Madness”, the hugely popular college basketball tournament, has also been called off.
“I’ve been in touch with a number of the leaders from the major professional sports leagues and that has helped inform our own decision,” said Monahan.
Nowhere is the impact of the PGA Tour’s decision to ban fans for the final three rounds of the Players to be felt more than at the iconic par-three 17th, the island green a magnet for thousands of boisterous fans.
A close second will be on Sunday when the winner walks up the 18th not to cheers but silence.
“It’s going to be very, very weird,” said McDowell. “I mean especially on this golf course because this is the ultimate Stadium Course.
“This golf course is designed to have 75,000, 100,000 thousand people on it especially on holes like 17 and 18.
“But we’re talking about a major global problem and at the end of the day professional sport is, it means nothing, it means nothing in the lens of making the world safe again.”
Reporting by Steve Keating, Editing by Ed Osmond