Players 2020: Tour pros not surprised with decision to play without fans, taking precautions to protect themselves

March 12, 2020

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The news dropped at noon, while the morning wave of the first round at the Players Championship was enjoying an ideal scoring day at TPC Sawgrass. The serene conditions out on the course—mid 70s, no clouds, no wind—contrasted the rather chaotic scene playing out inside the interview room, where Commissioner Jay Monahan confirmed what we all expected: Due to concerns over the coronavirus, fans will not be allowed at PGA Tour events starting Friday at the Players and running for at least three weeks through the Valero Texas Open the first weekend in April.

“I've never played a Tour event like we were going to play tomorrow, with no fans,” Phil Mickelson said. “It will be a very weird experience, and I feel bad for the people here that have supported this tournament for so many decades to not be able to come on out. But this is a pretty serious thing that we need to do all we can to make sure that people don’t lose lives over it that we can prevent.”

For some players, the decision to keep fans from attending starting Friday came later than expected. And perhaps it didn’t go far enough. The NBA announced on Wednesday night that it was suspending its season. On Thursday, the MLS followed suit. So did the ATP. The power basketball conferences cancelled their conference tournaments. The PGA Tour, however, elected to allow thousands of fans, from dozens of states and countries, to congregate at TPC Sawgrass and get within an arm’s length of the best golfers in the world.

C.T. Pan wasn’t having it. The International Presidents Cup team member from Chinese Taipei tweeted that he left Sawgrass well before his tee time, officially withdrawing because he simply didn’t want to expose himself to all that comes with playing a professional golf tournament.

“My wife and I want to protect ourselves from the risk of exposure to the Coronavirus,” Pan said on Twitter. “We are fine and our families are fine. Our lifestyle is like a circus, traveling from one place to another. We believe this is a time to exercise caution by not playing this week.”

Overnight Lucas Glover took to social media to question the letting spectators in on Thursday. After shooting a two-under 70 on Thursday morning, he said that a number of players were “furious” at the Tour’s decision to allow fans on Thursday.

Gary Woodland was on the fourth tee when he heard fans talking about the being prohibited from the tournament come Friday.

“I figured we’d hear it last night,” Woodland said after posting a two-over 74. “Especially with Trump coming out, and the travel ban. Obviously with the NBA postponing their season, you see college basketball cancelling left and right. It was only a matter of time before we did it.”

Woodland said that after seeing the NBA’s announcement, he thought there was a real possibility there would be no golf played on Thursday. He wasn’t willing to go as far as Pan, but the concern on his face was readily apparent.

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“I stopped shaking hands, signing autographs,” Woodland said. “I talked to some doctors. I have kids. I’m concerned about them. They said it hasn’t affected kids too much, but I have a dad with heart disease and that could really affect him.

“We were supposed to go to Disney on Monday,” Woodland added. “Looks like that’s not going to happen.”

This is something of a nightmarish scenario for someone like Bubba Watson, who has been open about his discomfort with crowds and social anxiety.

“I’m a headcase,” he said, “so I’m worried just like anybody else. And if anybody says they’re not worried, they’re lying. It’s something we’re all worried about. … Who knows what I have and what I can pass? Who knows what they have and what they can pass? We’re learning this same as y’all are. Do we show signs or not? Are we a carrier or not?

Watson, who shot a one-under 71, was eager to check in with his wife and kids, who he hadn’t yet spoken to. Before he chatted with media, he also was pulled aside and given a random drug test.

“We’re worried about the wrong things right now,” he said with a smile. “That’s what I told the doc in there—we’re worried about the wrong things. Let’s save that lab for something else.”

Jhonattan Vegas said he was trying to avoid physical contact, and he’s looking into taking a private flight home with his young family after this week—he has a 4-year-old daughter and a 7-month-old son—but, beyond that, he didn’t seem too concerned.

“At the end of the day, it’s out of my control,” Vegas said. “There’s only so much I can to prevent it. I’m a strong believer in God, and it’s up to him whether I get it or not.”