PONTE VEDRA BEACH — In a noon press conference on Thursday, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced that the Players Championship would proceed without fans. Those on site for the day would be allowed to stay, making them the last spectators to see live golf at TPC Sawgrass this week.
On the course, rumors began to circulate at least an hour before Monahan made his statement, and by 11:30 everyone seemed to know the deal—they'd be allowed to stay as long as they wanted, but starting Friday, the course would be empty. There will be no fans at tour events over the next three weeks, and with the fluidity of the situation, and the cautious reaction of sports leagues across the country, it's possible that Thursday's crowd will be the last to view live PGA Tour golf for some time.
On the 18th green, the fans knew it, and the atmosphere was tense yet giddy. It was a sparse crowd, even for a Thursday morning, and many people had their faces in their phones as the bad news poured in. Conference tournaments were being canceled in rapid succession, the NBA season had been suspended, and these were the last stalwarts taking in the golf before everyone got sent home. As such, it's no surprise there was a certain amount of bravado, especially among the men.
"It's overblown," David Somers told me, after scoffing at the idea of being scared or nervous about the virus. He had come from Chattanooga, Tenn., with his golf buddies, and he didn't like the idea of keeping fans at home. "The regular flu's killed 100 times more people than coronavirus! By the time they get the vaccine, that's a year and a half away and it'll probably mutate and be something different by the time it comes out. Ridiculous."
His friend John Combs is a postmaster and handles packages from China with regularity, but none of it made him feel unsafe. John's brother, Buddy, dismissed the concerns and echoed Somers, saying, "You can get the flu just as easily." They joked about a new kind of terrorist attack, where an infected person simply spits on a package before mailing it.
They were among the lucky ones who only planned to come Thursday, but others were facing the reality of abandoning their plans for the rest of the week. Anni Jacobson came from Flagstaff, Ariz., with her husband Joth, a high school golf coach, and their son, Tor. She described Tor as a "wannabe PGA player," and the trip was a gift for his 16th birthday. They had considered not coming, but ultimately they risked it for Tor's sake. Their original plan was to come on Friday and Sunday, but they made the wise choice to go Thursday so they could see some golf in case the rest got canceled.
"It's a bummer, but it is what it is," said Tor, taking it in stride and sounding a little like the PGA Tour pros he came to watch. He'd have to settle for one day of golf, and despite it all, he was looking forward to watching Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, whom he had never seen at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
When asked if they were nervous about the virus at all, Joth smiled.
"I prefer not to get it," he said.
Others, like Charlie Devore, rued the money that he'd lose not being able to come on Friday. He came down from Pennsylvania with his wife, Sherree, and though the tour is offering refunds for unused tickets, other expenses aren't as easy to recoup.
"I just don't understand it," he said. "I think everyone in this country is taking to panic mode, and I think it's overreacting. If they were going to do this, they should have done it all four days. We were going to stay overnight at a hotel, and I don't know if we can cancel or not. There are costs involved with it."
Still, he wasn't afraid of the virus. "Gotta live your life, man. Can't live in a bubble," he said.
Jean Hogland, who came from Connecticut, was one of the few to admit her fear, responding with a quick "yes" when asked if she was nervous about standing in a relatively dense pack of people.
"I'm old," she said with a thin smile. "That's why."
A man nearby began talking about the lack of CDC testing compared to other countries, and mentioned that he was thinking of canceling a trip to New York that week.
"That's where I came from," Hoagland said. "That's where I'm going back next week."
John Messmore, Hoagland's friend, was grateful for the hand sanitizer at booths set up around the course, and a few others mentioned that simply being outdoors made them feel safer.
"We had no inkling of being afraid to come here," said Thomas Zgorski, a St. Augustine, Fla., resident. "Indoor events, I get it, but with an outdoor event we didn't think it was a problem."
"The NBA, I can see that," said Ray Janes, who lives in Jacksonville and came with his wife Mary Jo. "But with this, being wide open? We're going. We're healthy."
Mary Jo woke up in the morning and checked to see if fans would still be allowed, and they had joked the night before about being the only people at the course. None of it deterred them, and soon they were laughing about the new prevalence of fist bumps.
"Are you at all afraid ..." I began.
"That I'll keel over?" she said. "No."
Glenn de Brueys bought four days of benefactor tickets, and as a 72-year-old man who works in healthcare—he builds and manages out-patient surgical centers in New Jersey—he was particularly incensed at the cancelation.
"This is thrilling," he said of the Players Championship, "and to me, not allowing fans is an overreaction. Much ado about nothing. If I was 80 and I had a pulmonary problem or hypertension, maybe I wouldn't come. But why don't we allow people to make the decision for themselves?"
The coronavirus has now infected more than 1,000 people in the U.S., and health officials warn that "the worst is yet to come," and that COVID-19 is "at least 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu."