PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | A man and a woman walking in the early spring sunshine Friday were making their way up the 18th fairway at the TPC Stadium Course where the Players Championship was alive and kicking.
“Look at the concession line,” the man said, pointing to his right at the four people lined up for a bite of lunch. “Remember the last time we were here? The line reached almost to the fairway.”
“This is so much nicer,” his companion said.
They remember the way it used to be.
What matters this week is how close it feels to being that way again and that is a huge, though potentially problematic, step for the PGA Tour.
It’s sports’ version of an oxymoron that golf, a game that values quiet, is best played in tournament conditions with galleries framing the holes.
“(The fans) want to be heard. And I don’t blame them.” – Jon Rahm
It’s hard to beat the set-up for this Players Championship with the golf course in pristine condition, the temperature hovering in the mid-70s under cloudless skies and a few thousand spectators roaming the made-for-viewing property.
As good as the weather is and as ideal as the conditions are, the energy of having spectators on site again is transformative. As the couple wandering the grounds noticed, the numbers are well below what they would be in what we would call normal times but having close to 10,000 people watching the golf changes it – and not just because fans don’t have to wait long to get a hot dog.
“I think pretty much on every hole, on every group, there’s the one group of five people that have missed being out here and they’ve been thinking for a whole year of something to say when we hit a shot, and that’s what they absolutely have to yell every single time,” Jon Rahm said.
“They want to be heard. And I don’t blame them.”
It was that way at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week in Orlando – the first event with more than a couple thousand fans on site since the pandemic began – and it’s that way in the PGA Tour’s showcase event where large hospitality venues are in their familiar places. The famous par-3 17th hole is surrounded by what could pass as small condominium complexes though the occupancy rate is, by design, significantly reduced.
No one has noticed it more than Bryson DeChambeau, the tour’s king of clobber, who has stepped into the role once occupied by Tiger Woods as the person everyone wants to see up close. He had hundreds trailing him every day at Bay Hill and grouped with Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa the first two days here, DeChambeau’s presence has become as big as his driving numbers.
“There’s a lot of support, which is great,” DeChambeau said. “They always ask how many protein shakes I’ve had, which is funny, and I always reply back with however many I’ve had that day for the most part.”
How many had he consumed by noon Friday?
“I’ve had probably four,” DeChambeau said. “Losing weight having that many, too, by the way.”
After finishing his second round Friday, DeChambeau walked alongside fans as he made his way to sign his scorecard. He heard the usual supportive chatter and one person asked him a question.
“What’s for lunch, Bryson?” the fan asked.
“Food,” DeChambeau said with a shrug of his big shoulders.
It’s not as if the pandemic has disappeared and the PGA Tour isn’t suggesting it has. ‘Masks Required’ signs have replaced the ‘Quiet Please’ placards held by marshals. There is an abundance of signage reminding spectators to practice social distancing, to wash their hands and to take other precautions.
For the most part, fans are wearing their masks, though Dr. Fauci wouldn’t be terribly pleased by how many fans have them dangling from one ear or around their necks.
As for social distancing, it’s not happening around greens and tees when the stars are coming through. There is space for everyone to see but it’s snug in spots. Nothing like it would be with 40,000 people on site – or what some popular area restaurants have looked like inside this week.
Asked this week about how the tour plans to cope with the encouraging news regarding vaccinations, commissioner Jay Monahan said players and others will continue to be tested weekly until the tour is told it is safe to stop. Monahan is not mandating vaccinations for players but he is pushing the idea aggressively, imagining the relief when tournament golf can look and feel like it did in 2019.
“Until then, we’re going to rely on CDC guidance, and our programs are going to be subject to the approval of our partners in every community where we play,” Monahan said.
This week, the taco truck is back near the 12th green and the wine-and-dine pavilion off the ninth fairway is busy. The hillside to the left of the 17th hole isn’t full but, more importantly, it isn’t empty.
The buzz isn’t imagined any more. Just listen.
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