PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – After eight months of running events without fans, the PGA Tour recently began gently welcoming a limited number of spectators back to its tournaments. This week, at the celebrated Players Championship in Northeast Florida, the tour will take off with as many as 10,000 fans on the grounds, the most for any event this year.
An audience of that size, however, presents a predicament for golf that sets it apart from most other sports, with spectators generally confined to bleachers or at least confined to a stadium or arena. Golf has the advantage of being an outdoor sport covering hundreds of acres with plenty of open space, and it has numerous security protocols in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
But previous tour events this year have shown that thousands of fans used to running from hole to hole will ignore social distancing guidelines and will tend to gather shoulder to shoulder around tournament leaders. during the crucial last holes on a Sunday afternoon.
Last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational – which welcomed about 6,000 fans, the largest audience to date – a crowd eagerly followed Bryson DeChambeau as he clinched a victory. Numerous spectators, especially those who had a drink in hand, had removed the face masks that tournament officials imposed upon admission.
Signs around the grounds of this year's PGA Tour events prompted fans to wear masks and spaced six feet apart. Hundreds of volunteers on the course remind spectators of the requirements, but as golf continues to leave its fanless experience – next month's Masters tournament will welcome an undefined number of fans and the P.G.A. Championship in May said it will admit 10,000 fans – the sport will have to continue to find ways to control a crowd accustomed to migrating across a track with few restrictions.
On Tuesday, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour Commissioner, said efforts had been made to devise new strategies for the Players Championship, which has sold more than 45,000 tickets daily in recent years. He also said that because the T.P.C. The Sawgrass golf course is built in the style of an amphitheater, with ramps that rise around holes to provide multiple vantage points for spectators, it should of course dilute the crowds. The stadium-style setting can also create an atmosphere as rough as that of the stands on an M.L.B.
Monahan attended the Palmer Invitational and admitted seeing fans ignoring the mask requirement. Asked how an event, and its volunteers, can impose a potentially unenforceable rule, Monahan replied, "You do your very best."
He added, "We continue to emphasize its importance. I have been encouraged by the number of people who have worn masks. And while I have seen some that are not, we want everyone to wear masks. And we will continue to reinforce that. ”
Players tend to see the return of spectators at golf events as a very welcome development – with some reservations.
" We've got them. "said Jon Rahm, the world's second-placed player, Tuesday." But at the same time, I want everyone to be safe. I have personally known too many people affected by the virus, and I wouldn't want anyone that experiences and therefore loses loved ones. ”
March 9, 2021, 11:16 pm ET
Rahm added admits: “I hope not all 10,000 get on one hole – up a group. I think they will all be separated.
For his brothers who are trying to protect themselves from possible exposure to the coronavirus during a tournament, Rahm had a suggestion based on the fact that players are usually not in close contact with fans unless they take a wayward shot .
"Keep it in the fairway," he said.
Rory McIlroy, who is the reigning champion at the Players, even though his 2019 victory came, he wondered if the change that golf is now going through parallels what other parts of American society have seen.
Last week, McIlroy said he read about the lifting of numerous restrictions by the State of Texas, including mask mandates.
"There's a part of me that likes that," said McIlroy. “There's a part of me that likes people to have freedom and have their own choice and things. But then you walk into a busy Florida restaurant and you're a little surprised, and you're like, 'Ho, maybe we're not quite ready for this yet. & # 39;
"The idea is great, but then when you really start living it, it's like," Hey, maybe this is a little too early. & # 39;
McIlroy had one last thought. Recalling that the PGA Tour ended all of its tournaments almost exactly a year ago, one day after the opening round of the Players Championship, he said: – The Players Championship 2020. ”