PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A gorgeous day on the golf course and a record-tying low score at The Players Championship couldn’t overshadow the obvious as the sports world ground to a halt on Thursday.
The coronavirus pandemic that forced unprecedented cancellations and postponements across the world was the talk of TPC Sawgrass during a subdued first round of The Players.
Fans were originally to be kept away from the Stadium Course for the final three rounds of the tournament as a precaution against the coronavirus, which became the story on Thursday. Later, the Tour announced that the remainder of the tournament was being canceled.
It was a stunning turn of events in a short period of time.
On Tuesday, the Tour said it was keeping an eye on the coronavirus situation, but planned on the tournament being played. On Wednesday, the NBA had a player test positive for the virus and later decided to put the season on hold. Thursday afternoon, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that The Players would go on, only without fans in the gallery over the final three rounds. Ten hours after that announcement, it announced the event, and several others that follow, were all being canceled.
Hideki Matsuyama shot a 9-under 63 on Thursday and led by two strokes over Harris English, Christian Bezuidenhout and Si Woo Kim on a low-scoring morning at Sawgrass. By the time some of the early tee timers were finishing up their rounds, word began to leak out that fans wouldn’t be allowed to attend after Thursday as concerns about the coronavirus sped up.
One golfer, C.T. Pan, withdrew from The Players, citing possible exposure to the coronavirus. He was scheduled to tee off at 2:02 p.m.
Monahan said the financial losses, from food vendors to refunds on tickets and parking, will be steep.
Golfers, too, will be affected.
The spectacle of a typical Saturday and Sunday at the Stadium Course are some of the best on Tour. At least in 2020, those won’t happen.
“It will be strange tomorrow,” Matsuyama said early Thursday. “I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery. But with that said, I know there’s a lot of people watching television and a lot of fans rooting for us and so I’ll do my best.”
While Thursday’s round was still well attended by first-round standards, galleries were noticeably thinner than normal. The coronavirus didn’t spawn any wild measures at the Stadium Course on Thursday – no fans donning face covers or surgical masks were seen – but there was a buzz about it.
“Yeah, I mean, I think it’s the right decision,” said Webb Simpson, a former Players champion who shot a 4-under 68 on Thursday. “I think everybody is taking extreme measures to make sure this thing doesn’t spread like it could spread. I know it was a tough decision, and it’s unfortunate for the fans and people who have bought tickets, but I do think it’s the right call.”
Two fans walking down the path through the always crowded 17th hole covered portions of their faces, one with their t-shirt, the other with the collar on their jacket, presumably to protect themselves as they made their way through the crowd.
Definitely not a typical day on the golf course.
“Yeah, I've never done it before. I think I played one PGA Tour event at Congressional maybe 2012 or 2013 where we didn't have fans on the weekend, big storm came through,” English said. “So, it's going to be weird here.
“Coming down the stretch, 16, 17, 18, like you said, the fans play such a big part of the atmosphere there and it's one of the best atmospheres in golf, so it's going to be very, very strange and only having a few people cheering or your playing partners, it's going to be different. But hopefully it will still be really good TV out there.”
Matsuyama finished his round strong to earn his way into the recordbooks.
Entering his final hole, the par-5, No. 9, Matsuyama was 7 under, his lone blemish a bogey on a usually easy No. 16. His second shot on No. 9 was a rocket, a 291-yard 3-wood to the green, and he drained a putt of nearly 25 feet for an eagle.
A putt like that got quite a bit of applause on Thursday. Now?
“It will be [different]. You hit a good shot or make a good putt, the crowd reaction kind of gets you going,” Matsuyama said. “It’s probably going to be strange for all of us, but it’s still golf, we’ll just go out and play our best.”
Matsuyama’s round was the fifth first-round 63 in tournament history, and first since Jason Day’s in 2016. Four of the five golfers who shot opening rounds 63s went on to win. Kim was the low golfer in the afternoon batch of tee times, finishing his back nine with a birdie on the par-5 ninth hole for a 7-under 65.