PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Hideki Matsuyama heard plenty of cheers on the way to matching the course record at the TPC Sawgrass on Thursday, firing an opening round nine-under 63 to grab a two-shot lead at the Players Championship.
But the 28-year-old Japanese golfer won’t be hearing any more applause this weekend after the PGA Tour announced mid-round that spectators would be banned for the remainder of the tournament in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
If fans want to see more of Matsuyama and the rest of the world’s top players battle for golf’s biggest purse of $15 million they will have to watch on television.
That is the only place fans will see golfers for the next month with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announcing a spectators ban from all tournaments until after April 5.
The ban ends just ahead of the April 9-12 Masters at Augusta National where the year’s first major is due to be contested.
Taking advantage of ideal morning conditions, Matsuyama got his round off to a flying start with four consecutive birdies.
But the highlight and biggest cheer came on his final hole where he rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt at the par-five ninth to become the ninth player to shoot 63 on the course.
“You hit a good shot or make a good putt, the crowd reaction kind of gets you going,” said Matsuyama, the only blemish on his card a bogey at the par-five 16th.
“It’s probably going to be strange for all of us (playing without spectators), but it’s still golf, we’ll just go out and play our best.
“I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery.”
Matsuyama’s performance earned him a two-stroke cushion over South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout, American Harris English and South Korea’s Kim Si-woo all on seven-under 65.
Australian Marc Leishman and American Patrick Cantlay were two further adrift.
World number one Rory McIlroy, who has had six consecutive top-five finishes, opened with a level-par 72 and said the round felt flat to start with the PGA announcement coming just as he was preparing to tee off.
“Maybe a little flat at the beginning,” said McIlroy, who is bidding to become the first player to successfully defend the Players Championship.
“If it had have been earlier I think they probably wouldn’t have let them (spectators) in.
“So they at least they got to enjoy themselves for one day and yeah, now it’s going to look a little different.”
The day began with happy fans filing into TPC Sawgrass and the PGA Tour under fire for pushing ahead with play while most of North America’s other major sports leagues and events were cancelling or postponing competitions.
Overnight the NBA had announced it was suspending its season indefinitely and pressure continued to mount in the morning as the Miami Open, one of tennis’s biggest tournaments, was canceled and Major League Soccer was suspended for 30 days.
The mood turned sour as word filtered through the galleries and the field that the PGA Tour had decided to take drastic steps in an attempt to curb the spread of the outbreak.
As golfers walked off the course they looked around at the fans milling about and pondered what is was going to look and feel like playing the next three rounds without spectators.
“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.”
Writing by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond