At P.G.A. Championship in a pandemic, the silence is deafening

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SAN FRANCISCO – For three days the P.G.A. Championship, the first major of golf in this disrupted sports year, the world's best players were introduced at the start of their rounds by an announcer who had no public point of contact.

It's a tradition, an opportunity to send players onto the court with a surge of energy and admiration.

"Now on the tee, welcome …" said the announcer for each group at TPC Harding Park. One by one, the biggest names rose: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson.

One by one there was silence, at most a few claps from the tournament volunteers.

When the players returned from their 18-hole outings every day, instead of a warm homecoming and a green surrounded by fans, they usually found no one. They were greeted by the same thing they had been through all round: silence.

"I don't like it at all – plain and simple," said Paul Casey, among the leaders entering the weekend. 'I can't do anything, of course, but I miss it. I play golf at home without anyone around, and I prefer it out of here. That's why I love what I do, and it's changed the dynamics of it.

Come Sunday night in Harding Park a champion will be crowned to a quiet reception on a virtually empty track.

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If a championship is won in a silent bubble, seen only on pixelated screens, does that count at least as much?

The PGA Championship is the first major US sporting event to test that question. The fan-free experience has been part of this summer's sports program for weeks now, including in golf.

In the coming weeks, the national landscape will be filled with playoffs and major championships run without fans and in relative silence. : the NBA and N.H.L. playoffs, the United States Open in tennis, the World Series, certainly the US Open in golf at Winged Foot next month and, in a few months, maybe even a Super Bowl.

But it's wave where the physical and the deep-seated connection between athlete and fan can be as close and personal as any other – up close, face to face, thousands stand in utter silence and then erupt in noise.

No sport goes from crickets to cacophony like championship golf

And it's not just a sound effect that's missing. The absence of fans has changed the competition. Some players, like Casey, complained that the course's low energy consumption was affecting their performance. Others commented that Harding Park's fierce ruggedness was not helpfully trampled by fans' feet. A few unlucky people have lost balls that normally wouldn't go missing.

On Friday, on the dogleg par-5 fourth hole, Xinjun Zhang tried to cut the corner with his drive, but instead hit his ball closer to the fifth green, which would be surrounded in another year. are by fans. The one or two officials in the area never saw it land; a search yielded nothing. Zhang suffered a stroke and went back to the tee to make another turn.

The official score recorded his first run as "288 yards to unknown". Zhang bogeyed the hole and rattled enough to make the next two bogey as well, on his way to miss the cut by two strokes.

The day before, Justin Thomas had hit a drive into trees along the seventh fairway. No one was around and after a search for the rugged one, the ball was believed to be in a tree. Nobody knew for sure.

There were other oddities. When McIlroy missed the green on the par-3 third hole on Friday, a wandering reporter accidentally stepped on his ball, hidden in the long grass, as there were no fans around the green who might have kept him protected.

] The empty atmosphere will be most pronounced in Sunday's final round. Golf is the only sport that requires silence, but only gets really interesting when it gets noisy. Sunday during a major is an audible experience.

It's Dustin Johnson's fans on Bethpage Black during the P.G.A. from last year. Championship singing "D.J.!" and inspired Koepka to victory. It is the wall of humanity that follows the final group on the 18th fairway at the British Open.

It's the roar of the Masters, at No. 17 when Nicklaus sinks a putt of Woods chips into it, or at 18 as Mickelson rolls into a putt to seal his first big win.

None of that will be part of this year's PGA highlight reel.

"When you look at players' career defining moments, in majors or other events, the audience is such a big part of it," said Tommy Fleetwood, who is looking for his first major. “You look at the last shots on the video and there is a lot of hustle and bustle and stuff. So that's different.”

Just it was a strange journey to get to the big moments of Sunday. Rather than galleries, each group is seen personally by just a few people – a scorer and maybe a few other officials or volunteers, reporters or cameramen.

It's awfully quiet. There is a hum from the generators feeding the few electronic scoreboards and the television cameras. Garbage bags at every tee pop in the wind. The gallery in "Caddyshack" was bigger than anything Woods or anyone else has seen this week.

The only fans are at tee # 12, where curious onlookers can peek through the chain along bustling Lake Merced Boulevard. switch fence to cheer up familiar faces. Everywhere else on the course, the only sounds are the tinkle of tee shots, the whizzing of irons from the rough, the clatter of balls hitting trees.

You can hear Mickelson slapping his leg after a missed putt and sometimes hear him mutter to himself. "Hell," he said on Friday after a shot from the third tee.

Without the white noise of galleries, players are hyper aware of other golfers in other groups.

"When someone nearby hits a tee shot or even lands in a green close to you, you hear that, you're so aware," said Jon Rahm. "It's just so loud. Noise travels so far here, and especially when you're downwind. You will be able to hear every little thing, okay, so you just need to be a little extra focused or aware that someone has a shot. "

The absence of fans is also a visual thing. For example, on greens, without a ring of fans to limit the field of view, movements in the distance – a cart driving or someone walking 50 meters away – can be distracting Sometimes caddies shouted for silence or silence from unsuspecting people who were far away.

There was no reason to tilt the cap or give a usual swing after a good shot or a putt made. were made without recognition. Eagles were greeted with the chirping of real birds.

"You expect an explosion and people just go nuts, and it just feels a little weird to be the one screaming because no one else is , "said Rahm.

It's all disturbing and disorienting. All the usual ways of seeing or sensing what's happening are absent or muffled.

" There is no feedback from elsewhere, so the leaderboards are all you need to see how you do in a tournament, '' said McIlroy. "There aren't even any scoreboard holders, so you don't even know how the guys in your group are doing."

There are positives. Moving the course has been much easier. But players still wish the fans were here.

"I know we have the P.G.A. Championship," said Jason Day. "It's a great championship. It's the first of the year. It's still not the same. "

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