The potential for a Masters free from spectators dominated discussion during the first round of the Players Championship, after the PGA Tour imposed a closed-door policy for the final 54 holes at Sawgrass as worries increase over the coronavirus threat.
Jay Monahan, the Tour’s commissioner, revealed he held discussions with President Trump before announcing a ban on spectators that will remain in place for three subsequent tournaments. Attention has now turned towards the first major of the year, with an update expected from Augusta National imminently.
Empty galleries will form the backdrop on the last three days at Sawgrass as they will for the entirety of the Valspar Championship, World Golf Championship Match Play and the Texas Open. The Masters – due to tee off on 9 April – follows, with speculation now rife that the public will not be able to attend.
“It would be very unusual without hearing the roars echoing through the valley,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, of an empty Augusta. “You can feed off a crowd anywhere and it can also a add a bit of pressure as well, in certain situations. This isn’t ideal for anyone but I think if you polled the players we would rather have the Masters go on without spectators than not go on at all. I think you would probably get a unanimous vote on that one. But it’s a shame.”
The Tour’s stance was criticised by the Englishman Lee Westwood. “Considering the approach of other sports in the US, I’m surprised how little the PGA Tour are doing,” the former world No 1 said. “I know we don’t play in such a confined arena but surely our age-range of fans are more susceptible.”
The Taiwanese player CT Pan withdrew from the Players hours before the first round while aiming a broadside at the lack of coronavirus safeguards at the course. “I’m probably the only one who is not playing,” Pan posted on Twitter. “Same number as the hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining.”
Monahan had sought to emphasise differences between golf and other US-based sports – the NBA being the prime example and which has suspended competition completely. Yet owing to the fluid nature of this situation, it remains possible golf will follow the same path. “Obviously we’re an outdoor sport, we’re not in a stadium, and here this week at Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres,” he said. “We felt by taking this step to address the problem with our fans, we’re in a position where we can continue to operate the events as of right now.”
Monahan admitted there will be a “significant” financial hit from his Tour’s flagship competition going spectator-free. About 200,000 tickets have been sold for the week.
Hideki Matsuyama ignored the fraught backdrop to return a nine-under 63 on Thursday, matching the course record at Sawgrass.