‘Nobody knew what was going on’ — How golf and sports stopped at the Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida – A year ago, Thursday afternoon at the Players Championship, Rory McIlroy wasn’t worried about a virus. He was upset.

The defending champion of the PGA Tour, which he had just opened with par 72, sat 9 shots behind the leader Hideki Matsuyama and stared at a quick turnaround for an early start time on Friday.

His mood was said to have deteriorated when he was patted on the shoulder by someone with a clipboard. He was informed that he had to go with them; He had been selected for one of the random drug tests conducted at PGA Tour events.

“Yeah, I did three birdies and they say, ‘We’d better test him,'” McIlroy said sarcastically that day.

McIlroy knew the world was changing and was aware of the coronavirus that had already started to disrupt everyday life. Even so, at that moment his mind was in a bad mood and the headache that comes with an announced drug test.

A few hours later, none of this mattered. The players would be canceled. Sport would switch off. The coronavirus would put golf on a 13-week hiatus, sending the country and the world into a state of turmoil that persisted a year later.

Now one of the strongest fields of the year is back on the famous TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Everything is very different from this week a year ago, when nobody knew what was coming.

For example, this Tuesday the players put on a Chainsmokers concert in front of thousands of spectators. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan conducted an interview announcing the PGA Tour’s new television rights deal. Tiger Woods was announced as one of the upcoming members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

On Thursday, March 12th, 2020, the fans were huddled around the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass. The next day, the event was canceled and the game of golf was paused for a 13-week break. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It was as usual. The players started on the morning of March 12th. CT PanThe one from Taipei and living in Houston was the only one who withdrew.

“It was a really tough decision,” Pan said later. “In my entire career, including junior golf, I have never withdrawn from a tournament. When I was 11, my nose was bleeding and I still insisted on playing.

“In March it was a very difficult decision for me, but for the safety of my family and myself, my wife and I, we think that this is the right call to say goodbye early. In all honesty, the Players Championship is the biggest Event on the PGA Tour and a lot of people come to see it [wasn’t] a good place to be here. “

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The game went on. The first round began Thursday, the day after NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive and the league announced that the season was halted. However, the tour should continue with the next three rounds, just without a spectator.

“Nobody knew how to feel ” Max Homa recently recalled. “It was a little freaky. ”

Meanwhile, McIlroy had gone to bed early that Thursday night knowing he had a 7:46 a.m. start time.

“I woke up early on Friday morning, hadn’t looked at a phone, had jumped in the shower, had all my golf gear on and was about to walk out the door,” McIlroy said recently. “And I looked at my phone.” . I said, “Oh, I think we’re not playing today.”

“I expected it to be weird, no fans, but still playing. ”

Instead, the tour changed course late Thursday night, opting to cancel the rest of the players and cancel the next three planned events: the Valspar Championship, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Valero Texas Open.

McIlroy met with reporters on Friday after clearing his locker in Sawgrass. He answered questions about how he would deal with it over the next few weeks. He was asked about the Masters who were only a few weeks away and how he would prepare for them. The question was asked, but timid, whether everyone should stand this close together while they spoke to him.

Not long after, Monahan held a press conference to explain what had happened – how the tour went from playing, to playing with no spectators, to finally abandoning it. He did it in a packed tent with more than 100 reporters huddled into the room.

Even after the NBA season was suspended and NCAA conference tournaments canceled, a full house was still in attendance for PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan’s press conference on Friday, March 13, 2020. Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It was a harrowing time for Monahan. He has been criticized for letting go of the tournament on Thursday and wanting to play on Friday even after other sports were suspended.

“We didn’t know on Monday what information we would have on Wednesday or Thursday. Everything escalated,” Monahan said two weeks ago in an interview with ESPN. “We tried to make decisions.” about the players as well as the following events.

“Only then did you really have time to think about how bizarre those four days were.”

Homa, who wore a mask and spoke to a reporter who wore a mask, pondered those uncertain days knowing that the country and the world are still very much related to COVID-19.

For this edition of America’s Caddy, join Michael Collins at the 2021 PLAYERS Championship location, TPC Sawgrass. Discover the ins and outs of the course and learn about the former Jacksonville Jaguar who has some serious golf chops. Stream on ESPN + now

“On Wednesday night I was in the same house with some other players and we saw the basketball game [between the Jazz and Oklahoma City] and the news … and it felt strange, ”he said. “We obviously didn’t know how serious that was. We played the next day and then canceled that night. I was frustrated because I wanted to keep playing. But obviously it was crazy and no one knew what was going on. It was surreal. ” But it’s a time burned only in your brain Nobody has ever looked at it. ”

Players rushed to all parts of the world. Bernd Wiesberger tried to find his way back to Austria. Several other US-based European Tour players were unsure whether to stay or leave. Adam Scott was among those who left and returned to his native Australia. He didn’t come back for four months and then waited another month to return to competitive golf.

“I pretty much made up my mind to leave when they said the tour was off for four weeks and I think it was just the uncertainty of it all at that point and I felt prepared – if I got stuck somewhere then then it was me I’ll get stuck in Australia, “said Scott, remembering how quickly things had happened last March.” I really honestly prepared myself to drive for six months, in the worst case scenario.

Adam Scott, left, left the clubhouse at The Players and went straight to Australia. He did not return to the United States for more than four months. FIR MAURY / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

“I find it even more incredible that we’re still sitting in the same position we were when we started our restart in June. We’re still doing the same thing. It’s pretty amazing how long this has dragged on.”

Many things are the same, but some are different. Last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational had between 5,000 and 7,000 fans a day on the Bay Hill property. This week, fans will be allowed, with crowds bustling around the famous 17th island green.

What it took to get here was no easy task. The schedule had to be completely changed – tournaments postponed, majors postponed or, in the case of The Open, canceled completely.

“Because we didn’t have much time to let these things develop, [all of golf’s governing bodies] I’ve started to be honest about where we thought we could play, ”said Monahan. “And to talk about it in real time. We had to talk and work through everything together.”

They had to discuss new security protocols, new travel requirements and testing procedures.

“I know that after those calls, we were very concerned about our ability to play golf in 2020 and beyond.” Jordan Spieth, who is a member of the PGA Tour Policy Board and was directly involved in plans to play again, said last week. “And the plans that went into effect, the safety measures … … they made the players, but also the staff and the tournaments, comfortable when they came out and took the risk that was there. Golf.” Bringing back was important. ” ‘

The Charles Schwab Classic in June was not just the first golf event. It was one of the first sporting events to be put back on the calendar. In the weeks that followed, golf had its own health and safety issues. At the Travelers Championship, Monahan’s scheduled visit was a time to warn everyone to follow the protocols after a series of positive results among players and caddies. He stressed the need to follow the protocols – not just for health reasons, but so that the sport could avoid shutting down again.

“We have to keep doing what we do because we still do it every day and every week,” said Monahan. “We have the same mentality as we did the week of June 8th.” [at the Charles Schwab]. I think I was a realist that we couldn’t do this without facing some problems, without some testing positive.

“But I felt very happy every week when our tournaments ended on a Sunday evening and we were able to host this event.”

And now, a year later, everyone is returning to the place where life has changed for them, for sport, for the world. And all memories come back.

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