PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship went from having no fans to having no players.
In a surprise announcement Thursday night, the PGA Tour canceled the rest of The Players Championship and decided to shut down its other tournaments for the next three weeks.
Only 10 hours earlier, as the opening round was underway and fans continued to stream into the TPC Sawgrass, Commissioner Jay Monahan announced no fans would be allowed at tour events for the next month because of the fears over the new coronavirus outbreak.
It was a bold decision in light of other leagues either suspending play or canceling entire tournaments.
And then the tour changed course.
“We did everything possible to create a safe environment for our players in order to continue the event throughout the weekend,” the tour said in a statement. “But at this point — and as the situation continues to rapidly change — the right thing to do for our players and our fans is to pause.”
Monahan scheduled a new conference for Friday morning for additional details.
The Players Championship is the flagship event of the PGA Tour that offers a $15 million purse, the richest in golf. There was no immediate word whether it would be rescheduled.
Also shut down were the Valspar Championship next week in the Tampa Bay area, the Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, and the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. The Match Play is for the top 64 players available in the world ranking, and there was some concern not all could travel to Texas for the World Golf Championships event.
The next scheduled event would be the Masters, set for April 9-12.
Augusta National's only comment regarding the coronavirus was on March 4, when the club said it was in contact with government and health officials and at that point all its events remained on the calendar.
Monahan initially decided to continue with PGA Tour events even as most sports were either suspending play or canceling entire tournaments, including the lucrative NCAA basketball tournaments for men and women. Major league baseball postponed the start of its season.
In golf, the LPGA Tour postponed its next three tournaments — two with title sponsors based in South Korea, another in Japan — with plans to reschedule later in the year. The final event was the LPGA's first major of the year.
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said on the Golf Channel telecast Thursday he was “fairly confident” the LPGA could play next week in Phoenix, and maybe even San Diego the following week without fans.
“But can I live with it if I'm wrong? If I'm wrong, I'll regret that the rest of my life,” Whan said. “This is a decision I may not like, but I don't think I'll ever regret. I just wasn't willing to live with being wrong.”
Monahan leaned on golf being a non-contact sport played outdoors over sprawling acreage, a set of circumstances that don't apply to leagues that chose to stop playing.
“And that's something that we thought about and talked about,” Monahan said. "But ultimately, when you break it down and you think about what's going to happen here over the course of the next three days and then going forward, we're comfortable having our players continue to play at this time.”
Not everyone was.
C.T. Pan of Taiwan withdrew. He posted a tweet — which he then deleted — saying he was the only one not playing, “same number as the hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining.”
Pan later tweeted that he withdrew to reduce the risk of getting the virus: “Our lifestyle is like a circus, traveling from one place to another. We believe this is a time to exercise caution by not playing this week."
Rory McIlroy said it was a “scary time” and that the tour made a step in the right direction by eliminating fans. But he said it would only take one player or caddie to test positive for the virus.
“We need to shut it down then,” he said without hesitation. “I think for us to keep playing on tour, we all — the tour players and people that are involved — need to get tested.”
He said he would get tested next week.
So the last golf with fans turned out to be a calm Thursday on a dynamic Stadium Course on the TPC Sawgrass, where Hideki Matsuyama tied the course record with a 63. McIlroy and Brooks Koepka each had three birdies in the final hour to salvage their rough starts with 70s.
“At least they got to enjoy themselves for one day,” McIlroy said. “Now it's going to look a little different.”
The cancellation brings an abrupt end to the most ambitious project ever by the PGA Tour. For the first time, every shot by every player in every round was available through streaming.
And now there's no golf at all, at least until the Masters.
If the Masters is held, defending champion Tiger Woods will not have played for seven weeks ahead of his title defense. Woods chose not to be at The Players Championship, saying his back was not ready.
Augusta National has a history of not rushing decisions. Even so, McIlroy found himself looking ahead at the Masters.
“I don't see how they can let spectators in if they do play it, at this point,” he said.