Players Championship – Friday March 13th, 2020 – The Darkest Day In PGA Tour History As McIlroy Emerges A Shining Light

This week we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event.

Four years ago, this same week you could argue the Tour’s flags were virtually at half mast and with Friday the March 13th, 2020 unfolding as the darkest day in the history of the PGA Tour.

Four years on, it still lives as the day the global Covid virus brought an abrupt halt to men’s golf at its highest level and also was the harbinger for all major US sports to soon follow.

And in being in attendance at the tournament that year, I cannot look back to that week without singling out the efforts of the then World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, his right-and-proper words that would prove pivotal in the Tour shutting down any further competition for what would transpire to 58 days without Tour competition.

The 1988 Players Championship had been my maiden PGA Tour working Stateside as a dedicated golf journalist while that 2020 Players bizarrely still my last.

In the weeks leading-up to what was about to unfold four years ago this week, there was plenty of talk of Corona virus but unlike the rest of the world, the US lagged behind not even lukewarm to grasp the enormity that was unfolding.

A fine example of this being that it was compulsory at the time in some US State counties to wear a mask into places like a shopping center while in other county’s it wasn’t.  There was the scenario of one Florida county closing their beaches to surfing, the neighbouring county they leave open.

The players were talking about ‘what they needed to do’ the week prior at the Arnold Palmer Invitational including also how they would interact with spectators. Should they be signing autographs and so on.

McIlroy visited the media centre on Tuesday, March 10th.  He’d been the game’s best now for over 100 weeks.  He tackled 25 questions from the media, not one mentioned the Covid virus.

Monahan followed McIlroy into the press room for the annual ‘State of the Tour’ address.  Again, it was a long-winded press conference with Monahan firstly paying tribute to legendary Pete Dye, designer of TPC Sawgrass who had passed away in January.

Image – Players/PGA Tour

Monahan faced just one real Covid virus related question and this was to confirm that the PGA Tour would not be hosting that year’s PGA Championship that was already in doubt due to Californian State Covid-related action declaring it would in not taking place in May at the intended TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

The 2020 PGA Championship did take place as intended at Harding Park but not till the first week in August, some three months past it’s intended May date. Due to the pandemic, it was the first major played in over a year, and had no spectators in attendance.

Big-time sport was getting increasingly under the ‘should they be continuing’ spotlight.

On the Monday of the Players, the ATP Tour had announced the cancellation of the March 9-22 BNP Paribas Open, and set to feature 19 of the leading 20 men’s players, an being hosted at Indian Wells in California and where as many as 450,000 fans would annually attend.

The opening round of the 2020 Players Championship got underway on March 12th with Hideki Matsuyama eagling his closing hole in a course-record equalling nine-under par 63.  The Japanese golfer was then ranked No. 21 in the world, and while exempt he had yet to make his Masters debut.

Matsuyama was asked after his round thoughts of heading to Augusta National for a first occasion

“I would love to play Augusta. I have two little kids at home three and five that I would love to see getting into small boiler suits on Wednesday”, he said through an interpreter.

McIlroy birdied his closing three holes but in a level par 72 while a day earlier, and the day following his Tuesday presser, he spoke to the media post the pro-am, and he was now very critical of the United States government and their inaction to deal with the global virus.

“It’s obviously very worrying and I think the United States has really been casual about it compared to the rest of the world,” said McIlroy.

“I saw today (Wednesday) that events have been cancelled and Indian Wells has been cancelled in California and especially there they are taking it very seriously and what it means for the world with the major being played there in May, who knows?

“All we can do as professionals is follow the guidelines from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organisation) and it will all get resolved and we can get back to normal.”

Shane Lowry teed-up at Tour HQ as the Open Champion and it’s why he found himself mobbed by autograph hunters in playing on a Wednesday afternoon.  They would be the last autographs he’d sign for a long while.

Lowry had spent the morning glued to UK TV coverage cheering on his Clara Jug Syndicate four-year-old gelding ‘Theatre of War’ to a gallant seventh in its debut new year race at the Cheltenham.

The Royal Portrush champ formed the syndicate that included his brother and long-time close friends as a thank you for their support following Lowry’s 148th Open triumph.

In a first race in late 2019, ‘Theatre of War’ was second at Leopardstown ahead of its 2020 debut in a two-miler at Cheltenham.

“I have absolutely zero knowledge about the horse-racing business but I do know we’re all very happy including my brother and one of the lads who were over at Cheltenham, so all goes well”, said Lowry after that opening round.

“I was hoping it may have won for us as when it got to the last jump, I thought we have a chance so all goes well for the future.”

Lowry’s Wednesday afternoon practice round reception was just so different to when the Irishman first teed-up at the Players in 2015 as the PGA Tour had completely overlooked extending an invitation for him to attend the now customary ‘Meet the Players Championship Rookies’ reception held early each Wednesday on the lawn at the back of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.

There was no such concern in 2020.

“The reception I have received coming back to the Players as the Open Champion has been fine,” said Lowry.

“Though it’s now no different every other week and that’s due to being the Open Champion.

“This is my sixth visit to Sawgrass and it’s just great being back.  The golf course again in immaculate condition.”

TPC Sawgrass is always so immaculately presented but the pressure was growing by the minute on the PGA Tour to act in the bigger Covid-19 crisis picture and they did by advising play there would be a no spectators policy on day two.

I recall leaving the media centre around 7pm on that Thursday night given I was filing upwards to three to four UK and Irish based newspapers, and with really late deadlines.

Then at precisely 9.40pm local time that night there was breaking news across the US news networks, as well as the Golf Channel going live with Monahan advising the 2020 Players Championship was being cancelled and the Tour had gone into lockdown mode.

It not only meant Matsuyama’s record-setting 63 would not count, but the Tour had become the first major sporting body in the US to react to the growing crisis but with no-one also knowing for how long would be the absence of competition.

Friday morning dawned and with Monahan hosting a 10am press conference, and it was a press conference the like I had never before attended, and that was of course the feeling among all in attendance.

Monahan was asked 19 questions with the formal transcript boasting 4,050 words and, if anything, it was the international players, such as McIlroy, who were at the forefront of questioning the Tour as to why they were continuing when sports outside of the US had always gone into suspension.

And those international players were lining-up to speak to Monahan following Thursday’s opening round thus resulting in midThursday evening news of a cancellation of any further play.

Indeed, Monahan was asked during Friday’s presser about McIlroy’s fears and whether it pushed the Tour ‘to make a decision, considering Rory was the No. 1 player in the world?”

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan addresses the media Friday 13th March, 2020

“Yeah, listen, I think anytime you have — all that influences you. And you’ve heard that from him (McIlroy). I heard that from several other players,” said Monahan.

“So, it’s the totality of what players are feeling and your ability to sense the pulse of the organization that leads you to make that decision.

“These are the best players in the world. They’re all here. But you also have to understand, we all have to look at the big picture, as our players have done here, and you understand that a lot of people are feeling that way.

“And that uncertainty ultimately led us to a place where we made the decision that we made, which is it’s not right to be out here, it’s not right to be playing, even though we feel like we’ve created a safe environment, and we don’t have any reason to think that anybody that would be out here has the coronavirus.

“The fact that everybody is questioning — or asking questions like that, though, is something you have to take very seriously, and we did”.

While Monahan had been speaking Friday morning those running the Masters indicated the year’s first major was being officially postponed.

I then spent the next few hours in and out of the TPC Sawgrass locker-room interviewing players who were arriving to clean-out their lockers, given the news of the tournament being cancelled caught all unprepared.

One of the first I spoke to was Graeme McDowell who had arrived at the now cancelled Players Championship lying 51st on the World Rankings (OWGR) and with the Wentworth-based body predicting earlier on Friday (UK time) that he would probably move back two places to 49th.

The OWGR would later announce that following the cancellation of the Players there would be no Ranking points allocated even though all 144 players competing received $US 42,000 for their first-round efforts.

“There is no playbook here and no set of rules to follow with something like this but since Wednesday night and the Presidential address, it’s just, everything has escalated pretty fast,” McDowell said.

“I’m not really surprised the Tour has cancelled this event and with all the other professional sports really kind of just pulling the rip cord really hard.

“The pressure was really mounting on golf to do the same thing. Even though we’re a very, very different environment from closed-door arenas, it’s just not an argument, though.

“Also, there’s such a bigger picture at stake here, and containment is so important, and we have to be seen to be doing the right — well, we have to do the right thing. It’s not even being seen to do the right thing. We have to do the right thing. It’s a responsibility and there was just no other choice.

“It’s disappointing from the point of view of this tournament where we’re walking in here today, it’s blue skies and perfect weather and this golf course is ready to go, but we have to be responsible and make sure that this thing gets contained, that we can move on with life.”

Lowry spoke to me in response to the news saying: “I think the PGA Tour and Augusta are doing the right thing but who knows, and all I am looking forward to doing is to take the family back to our house and kind of batten down the hatches.

“It’s good that the Tour has now taken the steps to cancel the events leading up to the Masters as you would not want to regret not taking that action because if someone does contract the virus or whatever you will just have so many regrets.

“Yes, the Players is cancelled.  The Masters is postponed but at the end of the game it is just a sport but an individual’s well-being is more important”.

And McIlroy arrived, and like most players he’d been watching Monahan’s press conference being shown live on the Golf Channel

“I know from his televised statement Jay didn’t sleep the night before last, up trying to make this decision and trying to make the call, trying to do what’s right for the tournament, trying to do what’s right for the TOUR, the players, the spectators, sponsors, media, everyone,” said McIlroy.

“It’s been — I drove past his house this morning on the way from the hotel here and just looked, and I was like, geez, it’s been a stressful week for him, you know.

“The bigger picture thing is that I feel a hundred percent better that they’ve made the decision and also for Augusta to postpone.

“If in a few weeks’ time this dies down and everything is okay, it’s still the right decision”.

In fact, it was a day shy of two months before the PGA Tour went back to work and that was on June 11th at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Fort Worth, Texas but in place was the a hopeful Covid risk of avoiding infection with a list of can and cannots, and all without spectators.

It would be a long time before the world got back to some form of normality but then four years on and the Covid virus is still with us.


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