Ed. note: Interviews for this story were conducted by Steve Eubanks, Sean Fairholm, Ron Green Jr., John Hopkins, Lewine Mair and John Steinbreder of the GGP staff.
Around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan pulled into his driveway in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and took a moment.
The second round of the Players Championship – the PGA Tour’s showcase event – should have been in progress at the famous Stadium Course a few minutes away. The weather was perfect, the golf course ideal and the anticipation piqued.
Four days earlier, Monahan was imagining how the week might unfold, thinking about the sponsors and players, the guests and the fans, the months of planning coming together for the single biggest event the tour puts on.
Less than 48 hours earlier, Monahan had entertained guests at his house as he typically does on Wednesday night of Players week when the low backbeat of concern about the coronavirus had begun to thump.
By mid-afternoon on Friday, when the Stadium Course should have been buzzing, Monahan sat quietly in his car. That morning at 9 a.m., Monahan had stood in front of the world to explain why the Players Championship had been canceled after one round.
A global pandemic had reached Ponte Vedra Beach.
It happened so fast.
In his car, Monahan had a simple thought:
“What the hell just happened?”
This is the story of how a global health crisis brought tournament golf to a sudden, unsettling halt and how through unprecedented communication and cooperation, the leaders of the game’s most influential organizations brought it back.
GGP’s account is based on interviews with the leaders of six organizations that constitute the large majority of the power structure in the world game.
Like virtually everything else, tournament golf stood still when the world essentially stopped in mid-March. The game’s leaders were aware of the coronavirus but it came upon the sport so suddenly that it was disorienting and discouraging.
The work of putting professional golf back together again was done through a cloud of uncertainty with a healthy respect for what the virus was doing and could do. It meant coping with fear, harsh financial realities and the foggy notion of playing golf in a bubble, all while understanding that getting back to the business of tournament golf meant accepting a moving target line.
Monahan, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, USGA chief executive officer Mike Davis, PGA of America chief executive officer Seth Waugh, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley and representatives of Augusta National Golf Club came together to rebuild and restart a game that went dormant for three months.
They created a private text chain, initiated by Monahan and limited to those select few men, to begin figuring out how to cope with an unprecedented moment. The texts soon became virtual conference calls. Meeting by meeting, day by day, a plan and a schedule came together.
It wasn’t easy.
At one point, the USGA was ready to sign a contract to move the postponed U.S. Open from Winged Foot outside New York City to Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles in December. That could have gutted the European Tour’s season-ending Race to Dubai.
The PGA Championship decided to still play at Harding Park in San Francisco in early August despite California’s strict health mandates. The PGA Tour set a May restart then moved it to June. The Open Championship was canceled. The Ryder Cup was postponed a year. The LPGA Tour had its global schedule devastated by international travel issues related to quarantines.
At his home in Florida, Waugh began reading The Splendid And The Vile, a book about Winston Churchill and his leadership through challenging times.
“I don’t mean to compare myself with him or our problem with his problem but kind of one guy’s will saved the Western world, right?” Waugh said.
“He just believed … you’ve got to know that it is going to end and it’s going to be OK. You’re going to do the best job you can to get everybody to the other side. That’s what I talked about the whole time, is how do we get everybody to the other side of this thing?
“I used the analogy that we’re on a boat at sea and it’s sinking. If we all try to get in the lifeboat at once, nobody’s going to make it, but if we take the infirmed, and the women and the children first and we’re a little bit patient, we’ll get everybody to shore and we’re going to be OK.”
Getting to the other side was the challenge and it took everyone rowing in the same direction.
“ ... I wonder if that’s going to get to us ... ”
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan had just landed in Australia the first week of February for his tour’s first of five consecutive scheduled Pacific swing events of the 2020 season when he was asked by someone from the IMG China office if he had heard of the coronavirus. “No,” he said, and shortly thereafter he began Googling the term.
One week later, there were discussions that would lead to the cancellation of the three upcoming LPGA events in Asia. On the news, there were reports of passengers on cruise ships contracting the virus and being quarantined at sea.
“If you remember that first cruise-ship positive was international news,” Whan said. “They couldn’t dock, couldn’t get people off. I envisioned us turning on CNN International and seeing a picture of our hotel with someone saying, ‘The LPGA has been locked in here for 21 days.’ ”
In the United States, the virus still seemed half a world away.
Mike Davis doesn’t remember the first time he heard about the coronavirus, which doesn’t make him different from any of his contemporaries. He had a USGA annual meeting to prepare for, a championship season looming and a long-term plan to announce his retirement late in the year.
“Maybe I was just completely naïve, I had no idea it would do what it’s done to people’s lives, to people’s businesses,” Davis recalled.
Monahan read about the coronavirus while flying to Hawaii for the first event of the calendar year, the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January. It could be an issue down the road, Monahan thought.
Waugh remembered the impact of the avian flu from his time as an international banking executive as he watched news reports from China.
“You realize that with globalization … we export all these things,” Waugh said. “I started thinking, ‘Oh God, I wonder if that’s going to get to us at some point.’ ”
Whan and the LPGA Tour were like canaries in a coal mine.
“If you remember, when the PGA Tour and the NBA and Major League Baseball all got to that decision was when the virus was in your backyard,” Whan said. “We made the same decision when the virus was in our backyard, but our backyard was Singapore, Thailand and China.
“But I’ve got to tell you, when we made those decisions, the number of calls, e-mails and texts I got from people saying, ‘What are you doing?’ it was not an insignificant number. There were times when I questioned myself. But at the end of the day, I knew that I could live with canceling events and being wrong by being overly cautious. I couldn’t live with myself if we went ahead and played those events and we were wrong, and somebody got the virus and we were all quarantined. That was where I landed.
“We didn’t see anything that nobody else saw. We were just near the source (of the virus) at the time. You look back on it and you say, ‘Yeah, of course you had to cancel.’ That wasn’t just the right call, it was the only call. I wish it had been that easy at the time. Trust me, it wasn’t.”
The second week of February, Monahan was in Pebble Beach, California, for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where much of the PGA Tour’s leadership had gathered along with various CEOs from major corporations playing in the event.
“Of all the conversations I had I didn’t have any conversations about the coronavirus,” Monahan said. “In retrospect that’s pretty remarkable that a little more than 30 days later it fundamentally changed the way everybody operates.”
On Feb. 13, the PGA Tour’s crisis screening team met to discuss the coronavirus and its potential impact on the Players Championship. The group was keeping an eye on the virus because it had forced the tour’s office in China to close.
On Feb. 28, the tour’s executive crisis management team had a meeting about the coronavirus during which they worked through an exercise related to its potential impact on the PGA Tour as the group does for other contingencies on a regular basis.
“Obviously it was in a different scenario down the road, not for the week of the Players,” Monahan said.
Masters chairman Fred Ridley sent a memo to the media on March 4 saying Augusta National was “not only monitoring the situation closely, but also consulting with relevant experts.” But at the time it was proceeding as scheduled for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals and the Masters in April.
The virus had come into focus for Slumbers in February because the R&A had issued a ban on non-essential travel to China as the outbreak intensified there. By Feb. 24, the Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific Championship in Thailand was canceled.
On March 6, Slumbers suggested to David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of rules and equipment standards, that the organization begin sending internal memos to staffers.
“This is going to last a long time so I think we need to issue short bulletins, often,” Slumbers told Rickman, never imagining the volume of memos that would be written.
Pelley was in the player lounge in Qatar in the first week of March when the discussion turned to COVID-19. Tournaments in Kenya and India were on the schedule and Pelley had no reason to think they would not be played as scheduled.
Until they weren’t.
“On Saturday I pulled all the players in and they were all asking me the question: ‘What is happening with Kenya next week?’ ” Pelley recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, Kenya is going to happen next week and at this particular time it looks like India is moving forward.’ They said, ‘Great.’
“Saturday night I had a call in my hotel room and I got on the phone with our friends from Kenya. That was canceled. On Sunday I went back in the player lounge, pulled them all together and said, ‘So remember what I said yesterday about Kenya? That wasn’t correct.’ I said, ‘That’s canceled.’ And then they said, ‘Well, what do you think about India?’ I said it didn’t matter what I think because I thought yesterday Kenya was happening 100 percent.
“That was when it hit me and I went, ‘Oh, my word. We are entering into something that is completely different.’ ”
“We couldn’t eliminate the fear certain people had ...”
When Monday of Players Championship week arrived, there was a sense of excitement. Tyrrell Hatton had just won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and while the Stadium Course was closed to spectators on Monday, many players had arrived to begin their preparations.
Monahan had spent two days at Bay Hill the previous week where he and others kept an eye on the virus’ growing danger. It had developed its own momentum across the United States. In New York, the Big Apple had shut down.
In northern Florida, the plan was to continue playing golf. Monahan led a Tuesday meeting with the PGA Tour’s leadership team with the intention of moving forward. By Wednesday, things were beginning to change.
“(I) was going to go to the Players,” Waugh said, “then I called Jay on Wednesday and I said, ‘I don’t think it makes any sense for me to come up there.’ He agreed.
“Then that was how we started having conversations about what he was going to do. Obviously, it all moved very fast … he went from playing with fans, to playing without fans, to not playing at all in two to three hours.”
On Tuesday, Monahan attended the Players’ traditional media conference for first-time participants, where he handed out cuff links marking their achievement.
“Even then everything was fine,” Monahan remembered.
On Wednesday afternoon, Monahan was part of a World Golf Hall of Fame selection committee meeting in the West building of the PGA Tour’s headquarters. The 20-person meeting lasted more than three hours, with the group eventually choosing Tiger Woods, Tim Finchem, Marion Hollins and Susie Maxwell Berning as the next inductees.
Hosting guests at his home that evening, Monahan intentionally put his phone away so he could concentrate on the people who were there. By that point, the tour had decided it would not allow spectators on site starting on Friday. They could attend the first round but that would be it.
As Monahan mingled with his guests, some told him they were planning to leave early. The virus news was getting worse. Travel plans became a concern, especially for international visitors.
When the last guest left, Monahan picked up his phone.
“As I grabbed it, I got a breaking news alert that the NBA had postponed their season,” Monahan said.
“It’s one of those where you look at your phone and say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Monahan called key members of his team and convened a 7 a.m. meeting Thursday in the Stadium Course clubhouse, roughly the same time the Players Championship was starting.
By the time the meeting adjourned approximately 14 hours later, the Players Championship had been canceled after one round and golf stopped.
“There were a couple of things that happened during the day that really hit me,” Monahan said. “One was we had some international players who were either concerned about their ability to get home or concerned about their ability to get their family to them. They get off the golf course and they’re doing what everybody would be doing, they’re making sure their family is OK.
“Over the course of our time upstairs, you had Disney (theme parks) close, you had Universal Orlando close. There were so many different things. As we were making our decisions in real time, that momentum was compounding.”
For much of that Thursday, the intention was to continue the Players Championship. The group spent time figuring out how to minimize the number of people on property, thereby mitigating the risk. It could be done with as few as 1,000 people on site.
But players were calling with questions. Dominoes were falling across the country as sporting events were called off in rapid succession on March 12. Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League suspended their seasons. In a one-hour window, the Big Ten, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences each canceled the remainder of their college basketball championships. Major League Baseball canceled the rest of spring training and postponed the start of its season. At 4:15 p.m., the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships including its marquee March Madness men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Despite being a non-contact outdoor sport spread across hundreds of acres, golf’s lonesome stand stood out too prominently to avoid the inevitable.
“We couldn’t guarantee that we would be able to play in a safe manner the following day,” Monahan said. “We couldn’t eliminate the fear certain people had and you weren’t fully sure of what the next two or three days had in store.”
Just after 9 p.m. on Thursday night, a text was sent to every player in the field. The tournament had been canceled. Additionally, the next three events on the PGA Tour schedule were postponed.
“Everybody went to bed that night knowing they weren’t playing the next day,” Monahan said.
When the second round should have been starting Friday morning, players dressed in exercise clothes were rolling their golf bags out of the clubhouse and loading their cars, not knowing for certain when tournament play would resume.
It was a soft, quiet morning, uncertainty hanging in the air like a fog.
At 9 a.m., Monahan stood in front of reporters and cameras in the media facility. “I’m a fighter,” he said. “I wanted to fight for our players and our fans and for this tour to show how golf can unify and inspire. But as the situation continued to escalate and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.”
Around 10:30 that morning, Monahan returned to his office and talked briefly to his team.
“Then the question was what do we do now? Where do we go from here?” he said.
When Monahan went home, he decided to go for a bike ride. He hadn’t slept much that week and wanted to get his blood flowing.
“I came off that and said, ‘All right.’ We worked all weekend and started getting our arms around how we were going to approach this,” he said.
“That was the end of disbelief.”
Friday, March 13, will be remembered as the day the coronavirus forced the world to change. In a matter of hours, offices were closing. Sports competitions around the world were suspended or canceled. There was no such thing as business as usual anymore.
A couple hours after Monahan announced the PGA Tour’s suspension of play, chairman Ridley and Augusta National Golf Club announced the Masters was being postponed.
“The situation with the COVID-19 pandemic certainly had gained our attention several weeks before the actual decision in March to postpone the tournament,” said Ridley.
“One thing, when I think back, that strikes me is really how fast events moved in the few days leading up to the decision we made. It was almost a convergence of the entire circumstance at one time. We had other organizations who were making decisions. …
“We made our decision independently with the advice of people whose consultation we had sought, and it was during the week of the Players Championship. I remember coming to the club that week. The thought was that we might have to be in a position the following week – the next six or seven days – to make a decision, but it became pretty evident very quickly that things were moving much more rapidly than that.”
In Florida, the PGA of America closed its offices and employees were told they would be working remotely until told otherwise. In New Jersey, the USGA shut down Golf House.
“It was a pretty quick decision,” Davis said. “It wasn’t as if there were people on the other side of the aisle saying, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this.’ Everybody felt like, ‘Until we know what’s going on, let’s just have people working virtually.’
“I felt comfortable enough, at least for the foreseeable future, that this organization could weather the storm and that we would be stronger in being able to do more for the game of golf if we were as stable, as consistent in what we were doing as possible. So, I felt literally in that first week, I’ve got to get that message out to the team to say, ‘Don’t worry about your job. Work as hard as you can. If you’re parents with small children, listen, family comes first.’ ”
On the European Tour, events already had been canceled and the wheels were in motion.
“It seemed like every day for two or three weeks another tournament would get canceled,” Pelley said. “(Communications director) Scott (Crockett) and I were saying to one another, ‘OK, we put that release out now. When are we putting the next one out? OK, so we’ve got another cancelation.’ ”
On the day the Players Championship was canceled, Martin Slumbers went to his office at the R&A. His 60th birthday was six days away with a large family dinner planned. It would be postponed because the United Kingdom announced a lockdown on March 16. Five days later, the R&A closed its clubhouse in St. Andrews.
“I wouldn’t say we were in a state of shock but we knew this was serious; it was just that how serious had not become apparent until then,” Slumbers said.
On March 17, the PGA of America announced the PGA Championship, scheduled to be played at San Francisco’s Harding Park in May, was being postponed.
“It’s tens of millions of dollars to build these things out. Every day that we kept building, I think we were spending about a half a million bucks a day, something like that to build. It felt like it was the only responsible thing to do at the time, right?” Waugh said.
“What you’re worried about is safety. You’re not going to put people in harm’s way. By the way, at that point we couldn’t keep building either, I don’t think. I think because of quarantine rules in effect in California, right? Even if we’d wanted to continue to build out, we couldn’t.”
In St. Andrews, the R&A held a meeting on March 23 to face the reality of a long-term lockdown.
“Disbelief was there right until we went into lockdown. That was the end of disbelief,” Slumbers said. “That was a salutary and sobering experience and I don’t think anyone at the R&A walked home that night without thinking, ‘Where’s all this going to go?’ ”
The world stopped with almost dizzying suddenness. Then came the challenge of figuring out what was next.
“ ... golf was able to come out with protocols and a plan ... ”
It started with a text chain that included Monahan, Pelley, Whan, Waugh, Davis, Slumbers and Will Jones, the executive director of Augusta National.
No one else was on it.
Messages were sent. Messages were answered.
After a couple rounds of trading texts, the leaders switched to group phone calls.
“I must say that the collaboration between the leaders of the major golf organizations – and not just the men’s because Mike Whan was involved all the way – was fantastic,” Slumbers said. “People often make out that the governing bodies don’t talk to each other but the truth is that we all get on well.
“You build relationships in the good times and what people don’t see is how good these relationships are and the trust that is there. So we were having two to three calls every day. We would all have been speaking to other people and other organizations as well, including Wimbledon in our case. This has not been a time to be insular and think you know all the answers. We all benefited from talking to people and sharing what we were hearing.”
Slumbers recalls being on a call that began at 10 a.m. in St. Andrews. Calculating the five-hour time difference between Scotland and Florida, Slumbers remarked to Monahan about how early he was up. Monahan said he could look out his window and see lights on in homes near his and told Slumbers “they were either working or worrying.”
It was the same for golf’s leaders.
“We had a singular purpose and that was to create a schedule which fitted all our own objectives,” Slumbers said. “We ended up getting what we wanted as individuals and getting the right answers for golf at the same time.”
It was unusual for everyone.
“When you’re doing the video thing, people hadn’t had haircuts in a while, people were working at home, people had hats on. It just wasn’t the normal of what you assume executives want you to see,” Davis said.
“I had plenty of one-on-one calls with Keith Pelley, and here I am, the U.S. Open, and he’s the European Tour. So there were a lot of one-on-one calls, too, just trying to understand maybe what somebody else is doing and what we’re doing, some things that are unique to a major, unique to what kind of one-off events.”
The seeds of collaboration had been planted years earlier.
“I think we have the Olympics to thank for that,” Whan said. “When golf came into the Olympics, it forced all these different factions and interests in golf to come together and talk and work with each other. Not that we weren’t doing that before, but it was on a much more informal level.
“The Olympics put the mechanisms and the infrastructure in place for all those parties to talk and plan and work together. So, all of that was already in place. That’s why golf was able to come out with protocols and a plan that seemed like a lot quicker than other sports that didn’t necessarily have that communication mechanism in place already.”
On March 17, organizers of the French Open tennis tournament postponed the event, scheduled to begin in mid-May at famed Roland Garros Stadium. Without consulting other administrators (which is not uncommon in the tennis realm), French Open officials also announced their unilateral decision that their event would be played Sept. 20-Oct. 4.
An every-man-for-himself approach like that could have been disastrous for golf.
“We’re all in limbo,” Monahan said. “It just was logical that we would take advantage of these relationships we have and have built together through the years.
“It was important for us to say, to the degree that you can, we need to put our organizational needs to the side and this is actually a point in time when we need to say what is the best product for fans and how can we help each other get there. That’s the result we should be focused on and everybody agreed.”
Each group had its own priorities. The LPGA Tour, like the European Tour, plays in multiple countries, each with its own response to the pandemic. The R&A is focused on the Open Championships and its other events just as the USGA has its championships and qualifiers.
Augusta National had primarily the Masters but it was a huge piece of the puzzle. The PGA of America had its events – most notably the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup – and the livelihood of its 29,000 members to consider while Monahan had the sprawling PGA Tour universe to oversee.
“What came out of it was that everybody understood each other’s business better and respected one another,” Pelley said. “The importance of the majors we all understood. I think there was a will that we wanted to try to find a way to get all four majors but we also understood the importance of the ecosystem that supports the majors.”
At Augusta National, the club wanted to be part of finding the path forward.
“There was really just a great coming together of those organizations to talk about what the possibilities were,” Ridley said. “There certainly was not only collaboration, but there was a lot of give and take and compromise.
“Any time you have a tough issue, compromise is the way you get to a resolution. But I think what was really heartening about the whole thing is that the organizations really worked together in the best interests of the sport. I think we came up with a pretty good result.”
Monahan emerged as the leader, the person who listened, solicited advice, offered counsel and steered the game back.
“It was never going to be easy,” he said. “There was no way for that to be an easy exercise.
“It was a lot easier because we were coordinated, because we were having the hard conversations, we were being real and transparent with each other. That’s where any ease would come from.”
“ ... had to embrace the fact that this was going to be different.”
Like trying to grab Jell-O, getting a grip on when and how to restart tournament golf was elusive.
Every day brought another round of discouraging news about the pandemic. Lockdowns became the order of the day. The world turned inward.
Schedules had been gutted. Different states had different restrictions. Different countries had different standards.
To put together a new calendar, it meant starting with the major championships. They were like building blocks with other events being slotted in around the game’s biggest tournaments. To that end, golf illustrated its united front on April 6 – on what would have been the first practice round of the Masters – by issuing a press release “on behalf of the leading organizations in the golf industry” that outlined a framework for the game’s return. All seven logos appeared at the top.
“United by what may still be possible this year for the world of professional golf, and with a goal to serve all who love and play the game, Augusta National Golf Club, European Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour, The R&A and USGA have issued the following joint statement:”
The core of the collective statement – issued on a day when the game’s absence was palpably felt – was the promise to bring the game back.
“In recent weeks, the global golf community has come together to collectively put forward a calendar of events that will, we hope, serve to entertain and inspire golf fans around the world,” it said. “We are grateful to our respective partners, sponsors and players, who have allowed us to make decisions – some of them, very tough decisions – in order to move the game and the industry forward.”
How they reached consensus on a tentative schedule required a lot of hard work and compromise. Two things happened quickly:
The PGA Championship had announced March 17 it had locked in at Harding Park in early August and the Open Championship was canceled.
“You had to eliminate thinking about, ‘Geez, it feels so different, that’s not the way we’ve done things.’ You just had to embrace the fact that this was going to be different,” Monahan said.
Waugh and the PGA were aggressive, reconfirming Harding Park as the site of what would be the year’s first major championship. Making it happen began almost as a wish.
“In talking to California we just said, ‘Look, if we’re going to jump off the bridge let’s jump off together,’ ” Waugh said. “That date needs to be early June-ish in order to pull it off.
“At that point we kind of lock arms and say we’re in. If you say you’re out that’s OK, but we absolutely want to do it at Harding Park. We said we would, we want to do what we said we would do.”
On June 10, Waugh talked again with officials in California, where stay-at-home orders had been implemented as cases of the virus continued to grow. It was clear there would be no fans but there was still the need to construct the facilities necessary to host players, media, volunteers and others.
“We had a gut check with the city and the state and just said, ‘Look, we’re a go but it’s kind of now or never. If something drastically happens, force majeure, and we can’t play it then we understand that.’ They said, ‘No, no,’ ” Waugh said.
“The governor (Gavin Newsom) was very enthusiastic about having it. He would say, ‘This is good for my state. We want to have this. We absolutely think it’s a great way to advertise.’ ”
Two months later, Collin Morikawa and Harding Park became stars on international television.
Meanwhile, not playing the Open Championship, scheduled for Royal St. George’s, reverberated across the golf world.
In the U.K., government restrictions did not allow travel more than 5 miles from a person’s home and those guidelines would be in effect in July when the Open originally was scheduled.
Slumbers and his group considered playing the Open in September but quickly decided it would not work.
“As a group, (those involved in the staging of the majors) looked at a date in September – first for a full-event Open, then an Open behind closed doors, and then cancellation, in that order,” Slumbers said. “The full event in September was not going to be possible and wasn’t going to get support for pragmatic reasons for a start. We would have needed to start building in June and there was no way we were going to be allowed to do that.
“The behind-closed-doors option became a very detailed piece of work involving all the pieces of the jigsaw. But when you broke it down, what became clear was that the governments and the emergency services here were not supportive of September because that’s when they were very much planning for a second wave of virus. Given what we know now, thank heavens they were.”
Slumbers said he felt a deep responsibility to keep everyone – volunteers, players and others – safe if the Open Championship was to be played. Finally, feeling all realistic options had been exhausted, Slumbers recommended to his board that the Open Championship be canceled.
On April 6, the R&A announced the 149th Open would not be played as scheduled, for the first time since World War II. It would be pushed back until July 2021 and the 150th Open would be played in 2022 at St. Andrews.
When Slumbers reached out to defending champion Shane Lowry with the news, Lowry joked that he would be the first player to hold the Claret Jug for two years after one victory.
“We had so much good support from the players I wrote to every one of the ones I knew would be in the championship and we had lots of e-mails back, along with a couple of good old-fashioned letters. They liked the fact that our statement had been decisive – and timely,” Slumbers said.
On the same day the Open was canceled, the USGA announced the U.S. Open was being postponed. The men would play Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot.
It seemed clean and easy on paper.
“ ... where can we play? ... when can you play it?”
Based in New Jersey, Mike Davis and his staff were near the epicenter of the American outbreak around New York City where the National Guard was brought in to help manage a frightening situation in late March.
“With (New York) Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo’s office up in Albany and also with the county executive of Westchester County, we knew at the point they were saying, ‘Listen, we’d love to have a U.S. Open, but we have people dying right now. We can’t possibly begin to give you any confidence that you’re going to get our support to run this,’ ” Davis said.
“It really did get to the point of us quickly sitting down with Winged Foot Golf Club, their leadership and saying, ‘Guys, we want to conduct this, you want to conduct it, but we’re just not going to be able to do this in a way that makes any sense.’ ”
Rescheduling golf tournaments paled in comparison to what was happening outside but it was necessary to see beyond the moment.
Finding a later date to play the U.S. Open wasn’t as simple as looking at the calendar and hoping things would be better in the fall.
“We talked about things like qualifying,” Davis said. “We have, I think it’s 110 first-stage qualifiers for the U.S. Open, oh, and about 18 qualifiers for the second stage and we started saying, ‘How are we going to conduct these around the country through our state and regional golf associations? Is it even possible?’
“We talked about things like, what do we do with the tickets that have already been sold? Should we refund? Should we send a notice out to them? What do we do with all the corporate clients that had bought corporate hospitality to the U.S. Open? What’s the message to them? What do we do with our broadcast partners?”
The biggest question became whether the U.S. Open would be played at Winged Foot or another course. There was no certainty New York would be in a position to host the national championship in September. Anything later would bring daylight and weather issues into play in the northeast. But Winged Foot is a classic U.S. Open site that had not hosted the event since 2006.
Davis and the USGA wanted – and needed – options.
“We made calls to Oakmont Country Club,” he said. “I talked to the president of the club. I talked to the owner at Pinehurst because at that point we were thinking, ‘Well, if we can’t play at Winged Foot in June, where can we play? And, oh, by the way, if you can’t play in June, when can you play it?’ ”
Davis and his group considered other options and when the golf associations announced the revamped schedule on April 6, it showed the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September.
In fact, the U.S. Open was on the verge of going west instead.
“When that announcement went out about the 2020 schedule, we literally had decided that we were going to go to Riviera Country Club and we were going to play the U.S. Open in December the week after the U.S. Women’s Open, which we had already decided we were going to move to December because that’s played at Champions in Houston and weather-wise, you could get away with that,” Davis said.
A December U.S. Open?
In Los Angeles?
“At that point, we didn’t know the British Open was going to be canceled, so that’s why we ended up focusing on December just because it was a time that could work with our broadcast partner (Fox Sports),” Davis said.
“It was a time that we felt like we could, at Riviera, pull off a U.S. Open and the golf course would be fine. And we started thinking about, ‘Hey, it’s a pretty neat idea doing back-to-back women’s U.S. Open followed by the men’s U.S. Open in December.’ ”
What looked good for the U.S. Open didn’t look as good to others, particularly the European Tour which builds toward a big-bang finish in December.
“(Pelley) had to look at his schedule, the Rolex Series and some of his biggest events on the European Tour and the fact that the Masters was going to be November and the U.S. Open was going to be December was going to kind of kill him,” Davis said.
“In defense of him, he couldn’t have been better to work with, but he was almost pleading saying, ‘Listen, we have to think about the European Tour here.’ When the R&A realized it could not conduct its Open, they weren’t going to get the support from the country in terms of emergency services and security and so on. That’s when we quickly jumped back to the idea of going in September.”
“ ... we were in a position to deal with those issues ... ”
If every journey begins with a single footstep, tournament golf’s return had to start somewhere.
The hope, at least when Monahan announced the PGA Tour’s suspension in mid-March, was to return in approximately one month. That potentially meant the Masters in April.
That notion quickly evaporated. One month became two. The PGA Tour hoped to return to action in mid-May at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. It ultimately would be three months before the PGA Tour began playing again June 11 at Colonial Country Club.
Among all the challenges facing the PGA Tour – and similarly, the European and LPGA tours – none was greater than assuring the health and well being of everyone on site. Testing, still an evolving operation on the national levels, was the essential piece to the puzzle.
There were other enormous concerns – how many people would it take to stage an event without spectators, what about television deals, how to take care of sponsors who weren’t getting what they signed up for, where’s the money coming from – but testing was the key to returning.
“When we announced the schedule, when we moved it to May, I was confident that we were going to be able to return and do so in a healthy and safe manner. But a couple of things we were working on, if we could get those done, then I would really feel good,” Monahan said.
“You go back to Sanford (Health) and mobile testing. The testing capability we have and being able to get the right level of testing supplies and being able to keep things, even though we have a mobile bubble, to allow players to get to the venue, to have the test result within two hours, to be allowed to prepare for competition and with all the other protocols in place, I felt OK.
“We felt our sport lends itself to putting ourselves in that position. If we could handle the nomadic nature of our sport – moving from market to market and account for that – then we’d be good.”
Across the Atlantic, Pelley and the European Tour faced an even bigger challenge. The European Tour plays in 30 countries, each with its own guidelines regarding the virus, travel and social interaction.
“There was one day when I had four different meetings within three hours with four different countries,” Pelley said. “Our biggest advantage became our biggest challenge and that is the number of different countries and the diversity on our schedule …
“We were dealing with 30 events in 30 different countries that were being canceled by the day and revenue was coming off the shelf in a torrid fashion and you were having to deal with it. So were they a stressful couple of months? Yeah, they certainly were but you had to stay in the moment.
“Everybody is seeking answers. You don’t have them and it is impossible to have them yet be very careful to not just say this is what I think is going to happen because you can’t because you don’t know. You just have to take in as much information as you possibly can, try to make educated decisions but most importantly have a plethora … a plethora of Plan Bs, Plan Cs, Plan Ds.
“Now all of a sudden we’re living in a world of testing, moving into restricted bubbles and how you’re going to execute that. My word, it became complicated very, very, very quickly.”
While the PGA Tour was dark for three months, the European Tour was idle for four months. When it restarted, it began with two events in Austria, then six in a row in what was dubbed “the U.K. Swing.”
With strict guidelines related to the European Tour’s testing and bubble, it was more than one month before Andrew Levy became the first European Tour player to test positive.
Aside from having to deal with more than two dozen countries, Monahan knew what Pelley was feeling.
“I was (feeling) everything,” Monahan said. “I was confident. I was confident that we would have issues. I think that’s the nature of the virus.
“But I was confident that we were in a position to deal with those issues and we were going into our return with eyes wide open, very open-minded about adjustments we could identify and make to keep making the environment out here safer. We were constantly analyzing what was working and what wasn’t working.”
After getting through the first week at Colonial with no positive tests, Nick Watney awoke Friday morning at the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to find an alert on the fitness band he was wearing.
Watney had tested negative before arriving in South Carolina and again after he arrived. But a subsequent test came up positive. He withdrew immediately with minor symptoms, quarantining himself for two weeks.
The question was whether Watney was a random case or was he just the beginning.
Monahan had just returned home early that Friday morning and as he pulled into his driveway around sun-up, he received a text telling him Watney had tested positive.
The news hit Monahan like a punch but he believed his team had put a plan in place to handle the eventuality.
“What (Watney) did is noble to me and what our players have done since then is noble,” Monahan said. “There are so many instances where guys all of sudden start displaying symptoms and they’re raising their hands and getting tested. There are a number of players that have done that and tested negative but if anybody does that and doesn’t raise their hands, you bring a lot of people, a lot of families into harm’s way.
“What (Watney) did set the tone. I have a lot of respect and appreciation for that.”
“Sport generates passion like no other pastime.”
As tournament golf restarted around the globe, one huge decision remained – should and could the Ryder Cup be played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in late September?
More than any other event in golf, the Ryder Cup is an interactive experience for the fans. As with other team sports, the fans take sides. They sing. They chant. They wear outrageous outfits.
It’s not just about the players.
The notion of a Ryder Cup without fans was like a beach without the ocean. But in 2020, the reality had changed.
It had been four years since the Ryder Cup had been played on American soil and, in some ways, playing the event on the shores of Lake Michigan was a giant recognition of all Whistling Straits creator Herb Kohler had contributed to the game.
No one wanted to wait another year to play the Ryder Cup but the Olympics in Japan had been postponed, another sign of the disrupted times.
Since the event is shared between the PGA of America and the European Tour, the host group is in charge when the Ryder Cup is played on its soil. But deciding whether to play was not a singular decision by Seth Waugh and his organization.
Like other decisions, it was a collaborative effort.
Waugh spent hours on the phone considering the options. He called Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin and political leaders in Sheboygan County, where Whistling Straits is located. He talked with a group of Nobel Prize winners who were working to solve the mystery of the coronavirus.
He also talked with Mark Murphy, the president of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, figuring no one knew more about the Wisconsin sports landscape.
Waugh ran through his potential options, pointing out that in an ideal scenario there would be 40,000 fans a day at Whistling Straits. That seemed out of the question in late May as Waugh and Murphy talked, especially with close to 30 percent expected to come from overseas.
Murphy told Waugh the Packers were planning to start the NFL season with 25 percent capacity with the goal of playing in front of a full house by the end of the season (which did not happen).
“He goes, ‘Why don’t you just do that?’ I go, ‘Well Mark, the difference is that I’ve got to build Lambeau (Field) between now and September,’ ” Waugh said. “He paused and he goes, ‘Man, of all the guys I’ve talked to in this whole thing, you got the hardest problem I’ve heard. Good luck. I don’t know what I’d do.’ ”
Having the benefit of time helped, but the options did not improve.
“Think about every possible conversation and then multiply by a thousand and that’s the number of conversations we had,” Pelley said. “We looked at every possible scenario, of course. We looked at everything and talked to every different stakeholder. We monitored everything closely. We wanted to see what happened.
“Before it was decided there was never a shortage of opinion about the Ryder Cup but that is why we love sport. Sport generates passion like no other pastime. You would ask, ‘Do you think we should play the Ryder Cup behind closed doors?’ Nobody would say ‘I don’t have an opinion on that.’ They would always have an opinion.”
The idea of allowing 10,000 fans a day was floated and it had some appeal. It would give the Ryder Cup at least a portion of its rich flavor, it would keep the event in 2020 and it would be something to look forward to in a difficult year.
For it to work, however, Waugh and others felt a healthy percentage of the fans on site would need to be from the European side. An American-only gallery would dilute the event.
Considering the 14-day quarantine rules in effect on both sides of the Atlantic, the idea of fans essentially committing 31 days to see three days of golf was a non-starter.
There was another factor to consider – postponing the Ryder Cup until 2021 was a problem for the PGA Tour, which was set to hold the Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, in fall 2021. The Wells Fargo Championship had agreed to move to TPC Potomac near Washington, D.C., for one year to accommodate the Presidents Cup.
Waugh knew the PGA Tour didn’t want to do that but it became clear there was no better option for the Ryder Cup. Having set a June 15 decision date, Waugh let it linger a few days beyond that. Eventually, the decision to postpone the Ryder Cup was announced on July 8.
“Everybody behaved as you would want them to. They know we tried everything we could,” Waugh said.
“Everybody did the right thing. It was hard but … universally we’ve gotten applause for having done it. I think everybody agreed that the Ryder Cup is uniquely all about the fans, that first shot on the first day. I think we’ve been gratified by the response we’ve gotten, too, that that was the right thing to do.”
“Our job is to grow the game.”
When 2020 mercifully ended, there were reasons to smile.
The PGA Tour had completed 25 events after its restart without any further cancellations. The European Tour played 23 events plus three majors. The LPGA played 13 events, putting a cap on the competitive year with the U.S. Women’s Open and the CME Group Tour Championship.
The R&A presented the AIG Women’s Open in England. The November Masters showed the world Augusta National in a new context. The PGA of America had helped steer the business of golf back into the fast lane.
Ultimately, what happened in 2020 was a reflection of the game, the people who play it and its caretakers.
The people who made monumental decisions also faced their own challenges.
Martin Slumbers, unable to play golf due to a tendon issue in one thumb, found himself caddying for his wife at times. Keith Pelley couldn’t get home to Canada to visit his 91-year-old mother. Mike Davis already had told a small group of USGA officials he would be stepping down in 2021 but most of the people he worked with directly didn’t know. He wouldn’t be able to tell them in person.
With five children at home, Waugh and his family had themed-dinner nights each week and he pushed everyone to take advantage of the unexpected down time that came with the pandemic. It was time they would never get back. One child learned the piano. Another picked up the guitar.
“Time is everything, isn’t it?” Waugh said.
While restructuring the global golf schedule, the game fundamentally shifted during the most significant health crisis in more than a century.
The number of rounds played skyrocketed. Tee times became precious. Private clubs that hadn’t needed tee times were forced to use them.
Push cart sales exploded. Equipment sales soared. Rules were relaxed.
At the PGA of America, the focus was on maintaining and supporting the game.
“We herded the industry on that one,” Waugh said. “We should. That’s our job. Our job is to grow the game. We touch it at every level.
“Everybody else has got their swimming lane, we kind of have the whole pool, right? It should be our job but not exclusively. We weren’t out there telling everybody what to do, we were soliciting everybody’s opinion and trying to coordinate it all.”
At an R&A staff meeting in mid-October, Slumbers spoke about what was happening around the world.
“Golf has shown it’s a sport that can be played in this environment,” Slumbers said. “I said to the staff there has never been a time when an individual’s health mattered so much. We need to take the time to make sure we exercise and it’s very clear that the best protection you’ve got if you’re unlucky to catch the virus is by looking after your health.”
At its core, golf is a solitary game – each person against the course. But it’s more than that. It’s about a community, whether it’s a friendly foursome or a sprawling organization that reaches across oceans.
“Whether it’s all the changes that have taken place at the elite professional level or the changes that have taken place at the recreational level, it’s been heartwarming to see how people have come together,” Davis said.
At a time when people may never have been more isolated, golf became the tie that binds.
PHOTO CREDITS Jay Monahan (Tracy Wilcox, PGA Tour via Getty Images); No. 17, Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass (Ben Jared, PGA TOUR via Getty Images); Mike Whan (Michael Reaves, Getty Images); Tyrrell Hatton and Marc Leishman (Sam Greenwood, Getty Images); Jay Monahan (Keyur Khamar, PGA Tour via Getty Images); Augusta National entrance (Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images); Fred Ridley (Augusta National via Getty Images); Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff (Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images); Collin Morikawa with Seth Waugh (Jamie Squire, Getty Images); Martin Slumbers and Shane Lowry (Richard Heathcote, R&A via Getty Images); No. 18 at Winged Foot Golf Club East Course (Russell Kirk, USGA); Mike Davis(Matt Rainey, USGA); Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson (Ronald Martinez, Getty Images); Keith Pelley with Andrew “Beef” Johnston (Warren Little, Getty Images); Nick Watney, Dylan Frittelli and Denny McCarthy (Gregory Shamus, Getty Images); Ryder Cup fans (Dave Winter, Icon Sport via Getty Images); Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods (Patrick Smith, Getty Images); Laura Davies with Martin Slumbers (David Cannon, R&A, Getty Images)
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