PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | As anniversaries go, there’s never been one quite like this at the Players Championship.
It was here one year ago March 13 that professional golf stopped in the hours when the world was cascading to a halt. When PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan met with the media Tuesday morning, he noted the 362-day window and altered global landscape since his last Players Championship news conference.
So much is familiar this week but so much is still so different.
“I was saying to someone (Monday), it’s felt like an incredibly slow 12 months, but at the same time it’s gone really fast. I can’t believe we’re back here already,” Rory McIlroy said.
In that sense, golf is no different than the rest of the world. Days have turned into months that have now turned into a year. Tournament golf returned nine months ago but it’s still not back to normal.
It’s getting closer, but getting back to where the PGA Tour was two years ago when McIlroy won the last Players Championship remains a distant goal.
The good news is that there will be 8,000 to 10,000 fans on site here Thursday through Sunday with a weather forecast that sounds close to perfect. The bad news – and there has been very little overall for golf – is the PGA Tour announced Tuesday that the RBC Canadian Open in June has been cancelled for a second straight summer as a result of the continuing challenges created by the pandemic.
Like other places, there is a sense of gathering momentum, at least in terms of getting tournament golf back to all that it can be. It won’t happen this week but it’s getting closer. Monahan, however, is committed to a careful, calculated and gradual ramping up, keeping pandemic protocols in place.
“While we see light at the end of the tunnel and there is a lot of it with vaccinations and the progress that we’re making, but you still have to remind yourself that you’ve got to focus on your plan and your protocols and make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep health and safety as our number one priority,” Monahan said.
“The pressure, the nerves, everything that goes into it, it just really makes it different. It makes it better, I think. (Having galleries back) gives the tournament the atmosphere, the buzz, the adrenaline. It’s just everything about it is so fun.” – Justin Thomas
This is the fifth event that has allowed spectators on site since the Tour returned to competition last June and these will be the largest galleries so far. There are hospitality venues built in various spots around the property but there will be spots where fans are shoulder-to-shoulder despite reminders to socially distance.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week at Bay Hill, an estimated 5,000 fans were on site each day. Marshals carried signs reminding fans to wear their masks, but many did not oblige. It felt and sounded familiar with fans cheering shots when they weren’t socializing.
“It’s funny because, like a year into it, you think, OK, we hopefully will be done now, the vaccine is rolling out and there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” McIlroy said. “So even, last week in Orlando, sort of following the news of say a Texas opening back up again and removing the mask mandate and all that stuff, there’s a part of me that likes that, right.
“There’s a part of me that likes people to have freedom and to have their own choice and all of that. But then you walk into like a busy restaurant in Florida and you’re sort of taken aback and you’re like, whoa, maybe we’re just not quite ready for this yet. The idea is great and the idea you’re comfortable with, but then when you actually start to live it, it’s like, whoa, maybe this is a little too soon.”
On the flip side, fans jockeyed for position around the par-5 sixth tee at Bay Hill on the weekend to get a glimpse at Bryson DeChambeau ripping his driver across the big lake. They will be at the Stadium Course this week, congregating again around the 16th and 17th holes.
Having galleries back changes the feel of tournament golf in a good way.
“The pressure, the nerves, everything that goes into it, it just really makes it different. It makes it better, I think. It gives the tournament the atmosphere, the buzz, the adrenaline. It’s just everything about it is so fun,” Justin Thomas said.
“You can make a 60-footer on 17 when you’re even par and in an event with no fans, it’s just another putt. But when you get a big crowd like we could potentially have here this week or like normal, you feel that buzz and you feel that energy.”
It’s not like it used to be – not yet anyway – but there are reasons for optimism. The sound of silence has begun to fade.
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