John Feinstein

Majors, PGA Tour struggle to grasp future with so much uncertainty about state of coronavirus

March 17, 2020
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Andrew Redington

Last Tuesday, I listened to a lengthy voice mail from Mike Davis, the CEO of the United States Golf Association. In typical Davis fashion, he was apologizing for a short delay in responding to an e-mail I had sent him.

“Believe it or not, I’ve been getting all sorts of questions about whether we’re going to be able to have a U.S. Open this year,” he said. “Last week, I was laughing when people brought it up. Then yesterday, part of Westchester County was quarantined. I’m not laughing so much anymore.”

Winged Foot Golf Club, the site of this year’s U.S. Open, is in Westchester County.

No one in golf—no one in sports, no one in the world—is laughing anymore at the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus that is plaguing the entire world.

When the PGA Tour finally got around to shutting down after the first day of last week’s Players Championship, it had to get in line behind the NCAA basketball tournament, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball.

But 12 hours after Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced that the last three rounds of the Players and the next four tournaments on the schedule would be canceled, came news that transcended golf: The Masters, scheduled for the second week in April, was being postponed.

Just as the NCAA basketball tournament gets the attention of non-basketball fans (if only for the purpose of filling out brackets), the Masters alerts the world that spring has arrived, that all of golf’s big names are lined up in search of a green jacket and that hokey music will live forever as long as the golf world returns to Augusta every April.

It probably took about five minutes after Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley announced the postponement for golf people to begin speculation on when the Masters might be played this year. Unlike the four regular tour events that were canceled, the Masters was “postponed.”

Needless to say, everyone in golf wants to see it rescheduled. The last year in which there was no Masters was 1945—the last year of World War II and the third consecutive time it was called off because of the war.

The question then is, when can it be played and how can it be worked into the schedule? October makes the most sense because that’s when the club re-opens after closing in May because the hot Georgia summer is tough on the greens and equally tough on anyone who might attempt to play in the heat. Multiple sources have told Golf Digest that Oct. 5-11 is date that’s being closely considered.

There is also the fact that this is a Ryder Cup year, and trying to play the tournament in September, prior to the last weekend of the month when Europe and the United States are scheduled to meet at Whistling Straits, probably doesn’t make sense.

So, October it is likely to be. There are still plenty of issues to be dealt with, among them getting the golf course into Masters condition at that time of year. But that will just give people something to talk and write about from Monday to Wednesday—the same way moving a tee back 20 yards makes headlines during Masters week.

The larger issue—surprise—will be TV. October is in the middle of football season. CBS televises the NFL and the Masters. There are plenty of possible options: televising the NFL games that Sunday on ABC—with CBS personnel doing the games. Jim Nantz will never give up Augusta for one football game, so CBS’s “talent” will be in place. CBS could also do a one-week flip with NBC: take the Sunday night slot and give NBC the CBS afternoon schedule.

There’s also the possibility of a Saturday finish at Augusta because CBS could easily move its SEC college football game to prime time that day. Chances are Ridley and company won’t go for that one.

The Masters, however, is just one part of this riddle—perhaps the easiest one to solve for the simple reason that it is the Masters. Anything else in golf will get moved aside to make sure America doesn’t miss out on the schmaltzy music.

Everything else, however, is very much up in the air—especially now when no one knows how long the crisis will last.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that no one gather in groups of 50 or more for at least the next eight weeks. If—best case scenario—that recommendation is lifted at the eight-week mark, that would be the day that players and fans are scheduled to begin gathering at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco for the PGA Championship, which is supposed to start three days after that.

Is it realistic to try to restart golf after what would then be a nine-week hiatus with a major championship? That would certainly be a stretch. Davis’ U.S. Open is scheduled to begin on June 18 at Winged Foot. Right now, there’s no guarantee golf will be up and running by then because there are no guarantees about anything.

Rescheduling one, two, three or four majors—not to mention the LPGA’s five majors (the ANA Inspiration has already been postponed), the five majors on the PGA Tour Champions and all other golf events, whether they be the U.S. Amateur or weekly events on tours worldwide won’t be easy.

The focus will be—naturally—on the majors. An important problem will be getting the leadership of golf’s various organizations to sit down and figure something out together.

People often forget that the PGA Tour doesn’t run any of the four majors. That’s why Monahan kept referring to the Players as “our Super Bowl” during his shutdown press conference last Friday. It is, according to the tour, the most important event that it runs—although some might argue the Tour Championship is more significant.

Regardless, Augusta National runs the Masters, the USGA runs the U.S. Open (and all national events), the R&A runs the Open Championship and the PGA of America puts on the PGA Championship.

Since the fall PGA Tour schedule hasn’t been announced, the tour could cooperate with Augusta in finding a date for the Masters. But doing that for the other three majors becomes tricky, what with only so many weeks available. It’s going to require a good deal of coordination to make all the moving parts fit together. Any potential rivalries between the PGA Tour and the PGA of America, or the other stakeholders, will need to be set aside.

There’s no doubt the players would rather play a major championship than a regular tour event: more money, more exposure, more history on the line. The tour has three constituencies: players, sponsors and television partners. Two of the three—players and television—are going to want to see the majors preserved for this year at any cost. Monahan will have some serious work to do if he has to go to any sponsor after the crisis has passed and say, “Wait till next year.”

All of this is speculation and will be until the moment when the world begins to return to normal. Then—and only then—can the difficult job of making decisions begin on what events to recoup and how to recoup them.

It reminds me of the moment in the classic Star Trek movie, “The Journey Home,” when the president of the United Federation of Planets says to Sarek (Mr. Spock’s father), “There seems to be no way we can answer this Probe”—which is destroying Earth.

To which Sarek says, “It is difficult to answer when one does not understand the question.”

Finding answers to the looming questions in golf, as in the rest of the world, can’t come until the biggest question—When will the crisis end?—can be answered.