PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Jay Monahan remembers it all too well.
The sports world stopped in Ponte Vedra Beach last year.
The PGA Tour commissioner made the call to cancel the final three rounds of The Players Championship and that made things painfully real. The coronavirus wasn’t just something happening across the globe.
It was here and it wasn’t going anywhere.
The return to TPC Sawgrass for The Players this week is a step, a small one, in a staggered return to normalcy. For Monahan, the Tour staff, the 154 golfers and small army of Players volunteers, it’s a very welcome return to the area.
Of course, it’s not normal yet. Precautions are still being taken. Players attendance is capped at 20% this year and the tournament sold out within an hour. Masks are required on the course. Cash isn’t accepted at the tournament this year.
There is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel in the sports world, but there’s no declaring victory yet over a virus that has resulted in more than 524,000 deaths in the country, according to the CDC.
“I think this is an important week for us every single year but particularly so this year,” Monahan said on Tuesday.
While there is a sense of excitement that golf is back in the area, Monahan was careful to say that the Tour was finally able to exhale and turn the page. There is progress and small steps in getting back to normal, but the Tour is still operating with full pandemic safety protocols in place.
“You know, I think that we’re still dealing with this pandemic and still operating in real time and still adjusting to the realities market to market,” he said. “… I think when this is clearly in our rearview mirror and we’re back to full fans and full normalcy, I think probably will be a time to answer that question. But there hasn’t really been any letup from anybody.”
Defending champion Rory McIlroy said on Tuesday that everyone has had to make adjustments over the past year but downplayed those changes. Regular people have had it far worse than professional golfers, McIlroy said.
“It’s hard to sit here and complain because we have it way better than a lot of other people in the world. I think it’s all relative. There’s been challenges. There’s been maybe having to get to tournaments a day earlier to get tested, obviously all the COVID protocols, maybe the challenge for some people not having fans out there and the atmosphere of tournaments being not as good as it usually is,” he said.
“But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not challenges. It hasn’t … it would be very … I think it would be wrong of me to sit here and say that life has been hard for the past year because I recognize and I think everyone else out here on Tour recognizes that we’ve been very lucky compared to the vast majority of people that have had to live through this.”
The Players was one of the country’s marquee sporting events taking place last year when America effectively hit the stop button on sports. McIlroy, the 2019 champ, was nine strokes behind first-round leader Hideki Matsuyama when the PGA Tour canceled The Players hours after the first round in 2020. The NBA postponed its season on March 11, a move that triggered The Players cancellation.
Monahan addressed fans and the media the morning of March 12 and called it a “gut-wrenching” decision that would affect so many people, from food vendors to sponsors.
At the time, Monahan didn’t know just what that meant. In the months that followed, those painful moments crystallized. The PGA Tour didn’t play an event for three months. Some tournaments were canceled entirely. Tour employees were furloughed and laid off. Daily headlines updated coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.
“I think there were a lot of challenging moments. It’s hard to pick one. But as the leader of this organization when you have to let great people go and you have to furlough workers and you have to take some of the steps that we take, those are things that I’ll never forget, and I still feel today,” Monahan said. “That’s the kind of thing that’ll always stay with you.”