Today, Friday, is the second day of the Players Championship, 2021 edition. I hope it will be a day to remember, the sort of day “when all nature cries fore” as PG Wodehouse, the British author put it. Play will start soon after dawn and continue until dusk when it will be clear – or should be – how many competitors have got through to the last two rounds of the event and who they are.
It was not like this on the second day of the championship last year, 2020. I know because I was there. Indeed, there was no second day. One eight-letter word explains why, one that may have become one of the most used words in the past year – pandemic.
The tournament was cancelled around 9 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, 12th March, the first day. That night, Ron Green Jr., my colleague, and I were attacking steaks and baked potatoes in an Outback Steakhouse off Atlantic Boulevard when we received word of this and were summoned to a press conference in the media centre at Sawgrass the next morning to hear the reasoning behind this decision. “In the golf business it was a ‘remember where you were’ moment,” Jack Peter, former president of the World Golf Hall of Fame said. Only now does the significance of that day and date hit home. It was Friday the 13th.
I have been attending the Players for nearly 40 years, when it was held in March, then May and now in March again. It is a favourite event because often I exchanged the grey dampness of a British winter for the warm sunshine of a Florida spring. You don’t need to have a bad back to feel better for a bit of heat on it.
On Tuesday I had my annual meeting with Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour before Monahan. This ritual had begun more than 12 years earlier and was nearly always held in the clubhouse boardroom.
The Players has always liked to describe itself as the fifth major championship, which it isn’t, and it certainly had an air about it as well as a very strong field. Even so, I felt it was less starchy than the major championships. Walking out to the driving range and patrolling it, pausing to say hello to some players or to arrange to talk to them later, didn’t feel like work when the sun was shining. It was an easy course to walk ’round and, perhaps best of all, there was a sizable area away from spectators where we could talk to players after they had signed their cards and before they made a dash for the locker room. At the beginning of each year I wrote the dates of The Players in my diary with some enthusiasm.
Last year began in much the normal way. I flew from Gatwick to Orlando on Sunday. On Monday I did some of the reporting for a piece I was working on about Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, who had recently become the third golfer ever to top the world rankings for 100 weeks. It was to run in The Times on Thursday, quoting the opinions of numerous Americans including: Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel; Justin Thomas, then ranked fourth in the world; Jim Furyk, the immediate past US Ryder Cup captain; Webb Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion; and Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. It all sounded fairly positive and sub-editors in The Times’ office in London put the following headline on my piece: “We’re looking at an absolute monster year for McIlroy.”
On Tuesday I had my annual meeting with Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour before Monahan. This ritual had begun more than 12 years earlier and was nearly always held in the clubhouse boardroom. The first year, by way of breaking the ice, I commented on a piece I had read about him in an American magazine that morning. “That’s not good ink,” he said. “Your paper is good ink.”
As the years went by, our interview tradition continued and early one Saturday morning he took me to play golf with him at Pablo Creek, his club. Here’s a tip: Finchem likes to play fast, and is good at walking from one side of a fairway to another to help look for lost balls. At Pablo Creek, he can pretend to be just another member, able to sit at a small table after a round and give and take some verbal nonsense from fellow members.
Last year’s lunch with Finchem was memorable for two reasons. The first was that Deane Beman was also present and politics were discussed. The second was that Finchem gave me a friendly grilling about The Crown, the Netflix series about the British royal family that he and his wife had been binge-watching. He asked about the Aberfan disaster in 1966 when 116 children and 28 adults had died in a mining accident in south Wales. He asked whether Prince Charles had learned Welsh when he went to college in Wales. Then, lunch over, he and I walked out of the Commissioner’s Suite together. He was going to go and hit some balls, I was heading back to the media centre.
“How’s your game?” he asked as we walked. I explained that I was trying to stop taking my club back on the inside, which often resulted in it pointing to the right at the top of the backswing and created some very erratic shots. In turn, Finchem told how he had been taught to take the clubhead away as if reaching out to touch a tree a few feet to his right and then moving the clubhead up the trunk of the tree to get it on line. For a few minutes in the Florida sun, Finchem and I were awestruck lifelong golfers seeking, as all golfers do, techniques that might help us to unravel the mysteries of an ancient game.
Those meetings with Finchem, and later with Monahan, gave me an opportunity to assess their characters and their styles of working. Finchem’s strength was in the boardroom where he would lead discussions and then lean back in his chair listening to the voices around him, often with a bottle of water by his side. While considering what was being said, he would narrow his eyes to concentrate better. As he and I got to know each other, Finchem relaxed, swinging his legs up onto the table and asking: “So what’s on your mind?” After one of these interviews, I described him in Global Golf Post not as the PGA Tour’s commissioner but as an enthusiast forever bemused by the game. “I liked that,” he told me later. “You made me sound like a golfer.”
When Monahan took over, our meetings sometimes took place in the Commissioner’s Suite overlooking the 18th green and it became clear from the stream of people wanting to talk to Jay that he was very approachable. He was, I wrote, as comfortable in a boardroom or a cocktail party as he would be in a pub or on a golf course. “He’s Irish,” Finchem had said of his successor. “He has the gift of the gab.”
On Wednesday members of the WGHoF’s induction committee met at Tour HQ. Greg McLaughlin, president of the First Tee Foundation and chief executive of the World Golf Foundation, did some of the introductions and then the 16 of us including Beth Daniel, Guy Kinnings, deputy chief executive of the European Tour, Mike Whan of the LPGA, Mike Davis of the USGA and Annika Sörenstam and Curtis Strange via speakerphone had a spirited discussion lasting several hours before choosing Woods, Finchem, Marion Hollins, the player, administrator and course architect, and Susie Berning, the LPGA star, to be inducted at the US Open. There was little talk of the pandemic, though at one point, when one of us went to the lavatory, Whan called out: “Remember to wash your hands for 20 seconds. Sing a verse of Happy Birthday.”
The status quo at the Players remained, however uneasy. Thursday dawned, a typical Florida day of clear skies and a warm sun. Then at midday came the announcement that spectators would not be admitted to the tournament thereafter. “This is a very serious situation,” Graeme McDowell, who had just finished his first round, said. “And we have to hope we can get on top of it very quickly. Golf is insignificant all of a sudden.”
The feeling at Sawgrass clearly was that banning the spectators was sufficient for the time being despite the fact that the National Basketball Association had announced on Wednesday night it was suspending its season with immediate effect and Major League Soccer had also closed down.
By way of justification for not doing likewise, Monahan pointed out that the NCAA basketball tournaments were continuing without spectators, though two universities had announced they were pulling out of the competition and others were expected to follow suit.
“We’re an outdoor sport (as opposed to being confined in a stadium),” Monahan said. “At TPC Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres. Because of the nature of that and the fact you’ve got 144 players over the course of a round players generally do socially distance themselves. We felt that by taking this step to address the problem with our fans we’re in a position where we can continue to operate. We’re comfortable with having our players continue to play at this time.”
That night though, the Players Championship was cancelled and the next morning a stern-faced Monahan announced the thinking behind that decision. Shortly thereafter came news that the Masters, due to start 28 days later, would be postponed indefinitely. Monahan looked tired, as indeed he might. The week that had begun with him announcing the tour’s new media-rights deal had changed dramatically in a couple of stressful days and nights. He said he hadn’t had much sleep that week but when a journalist tried to sympathise he responded: “I am not important in this.”
March 15th, 2020, was not a very good day for me either as I left the US saddened by what was happening and apprehensive about what I would find in my own country.
He confirmed that the views of the players had been very important in coming to that decision. Typical were the comments of Rory McIlroy who had said after his first round “… if one player or caddie had the virus we need to shut it down. A lot of volunteers are in their 60s and 70s and retired and you don’t want someone that’s got the virus and passes it on to them. My mother has got respiratory issues and I certainly didn’t want to get something and pass it on to her.”
I filed a short story to The Times for Saturday’s paper and then my thoughts and those of some of the Europe team players turned to getting back to the UK as quickly as possible. “The only logical thing to do is to get home and help any elderly so they don’t have to go out too much,” said Bernd Wiesberger, who lives in Vienna. “Golf will return at some point. We don’t know when and it’s not priority right now.”
The earliest flight I could get was Sunday, March 15th. The Ides of March were not a good time for Julius Caesar. He was assassinated on that day by a cabal of former friends. March 15th, 2020, was not a very good day for me either as I left the US saddened by what was happening and apprehensive about what I would find in my own country. Little did I know then that I wouldn’t visit the US again for more than one year. Nor did I know then how much worse things were going to get in the UK in the coming year.
Top: A view of the silenced 17th green at the Stadium Course on March 13, 2020. Photo: Ben Jared, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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