Contained in the PGA Tour’s shutdown on the 2020 Gamers Championship


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – What they recall now, a yr later, is the dizzying velocity.

How the novel coronavirus mushroomed from a global concern into a world pandemic.

How within the span of a day, they retreated from 40,000 maskless followers to no spectators to zero tournaments – interval – for the following few months.

How commissioner Jay Monahan crashed from the excessive of the PGA Tour’s flagship occasion to driving house 24 hours later, his head spinning, questioning what the hell had simply occurred.

It was knowledgeable disaster nobody might have adequately ready for, and all of it unfolded right here – in a dim, cozy convention room on the second ground of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Huddled contained in the Board Room, surrounded by oil work of the previous commissioners, the Tour’s govt management group met for greater than 12 hours on March 12, 2020, making an attempt to return to grips with an existential menace to their enterprise.

On the tv they may monitor each the primary spherical of The Gamers Championship and the breaking-news chyrons on each main community. From the balcony they may watch hundreds of followers stroll the luxurious grounds, buzzing from the day’s motion (if not the $9 beers), seemingly oblivious to the chaos unfolding round them.

Faculties had been closing.

Companies had been ceasing operations.

Borders had been locking down.

These seated across the convention room desk knew the path they had been headed, however the velocity they arrived there, fueled by every little bit of regarding information, was disorienting. By dusk, golf was on an island as small as TPC Sawgrass’ seventeenth.

On the finish of a marathon day of conferences, Laura Neal, the Tour’s senior vp of communications and media content material, remembered one thing she’d realized in a disaster communications class. On an enormous pad of paper, she scribbled this query for the group to think about:

What would affordable folks appropriately anticipate us to do?

Monahan had been out and in of the room, taking calls, listening to the newest updates, formulating a plan. Then he walked in, glanced at that query on the wall and paused for a second.

The reply was apparent.

“It’s over,” he mentioned. “I feel it’s over.”

The TPC Sawgrass clubhouse on Day 2 of the 2020 Gamers Championship.

THE STORY OF THE 2020 Gamers Championship shutdown is a blur, but in addition months within the making.

The primary time Neal heard about COVID-19 was in December 2019, in a blurb on the entrance web page of USA As we speak. Monahan examine it whereas touring to Hawaii for the opening occasion; a month later, he was at Pebble Seashore, assembly with titans of business, and didn’t have a single dialog concerning the virus, regardless of the U.S. declaring a public well being emergency on Jan. 31. The Tour’s disaster screening and govt disaster administration groups every held conferences in February to debate the potential impacts – though they weren’t anticipated to be felt for an additional few months.

As soon as the Florida swing started, the Tour had applied a couple of precautionary measures. Little was identified on the time concerning the airborne nature of the virus, so the early steps targeted on educating the membership and mitigating bodily contact and floor transmission (including sanitizing bushes and hand-washing stations, putting repeatedly self-cleaning stickers on door handles). Gamers had been discouraged from signing autographs, however occasions featured the same old galleries and media presence. When Tyrrell Hatton donned the normal winner’s cardigan at Bay Hill, the virus nonetheless felt like a faraway storm, not an imminent menace.

On Monday of Gamers week, Monahan and Neal had been on a media tour in New York Metropolis – in what would quickly change into the COVID-19 epicenter – to trumpet the Tour’s new media rights deal. The virus was the principle matter of dialogue on CNBC after a weekend of COVID-related headlines, and whereas ready within the inexperienced room Monahan heard the friends previous him predict a major enterprise influence.

“It was only a matter of when,” he mentioned.

On digicam, there was a clumsy cut up display screen: Monahan talking optimistically concerning the Tour’s long-term stability whereas the inventory market plummeted amid a deteriorating well being disaster.

“It felt like we had been proper firstly of an enormous information and international occasion,” Neal mentioned. “All of it form of broke free from there.”

However a thousand miles away, again at TPC Sawgrass, there was little sense the Tour’s largest occasion could be affected. Following steerage from the CDC, the Chainsmokers carried out Tuesday to a packed crowd surrounding the seventeenth gap. Monahan handed out cufflinks to the first-time members. Eleven gamers held a pre-tournament information convention; solely two questions – whole – pertained to the virus. Monahan’s presser was extra complete, however he careworn they had been nonetheless “full velocity forward” whereas exercising warning about what was a “very dynamic state of affairs.”

Dealing with elevated scrutiny, Andy Levinson, the senior vp of event administration, met with medical advisers concerning the state of the virus. In comparison with different sports activities, they nonetheless believed that golf loved some built-in benefits as a result of it was a non-contact exercise unfold out over tons of of acres. Whether or not that was sufficient of a differentiator, they didn’t know for certain.

“On the time The Gamers began, we didn’t really feel prefer it was going to influence the event,” Levinson mentioned. “Clearly, that modified shortly.”

WEDNESDAY NIGHT OF TOURNAMENT week was the commissioner’s annual occasion at his home. It’s Monahan’s approach of welcoming worldwide companions and sponsors into city, however he was bowled over by what number of friends had both no-showed or had been leaving early the following morning.

Monahan had put away his cellphone to focus on the folks there. When the final visitor left, he turned it on and was flooded with notifications. One alert stood out: The NBA had suspended its season after a participant examined optimistic. Video of the group’s head medical staffer sprinting onto the courtroom was going viral.

“That was after I knew,” Monahan mentioned, “that we had a much bigger and extra speedy downside.”

The Tour’s disaster administration committee convened late that evening to make sure that everybody was conscious of the newest spherical of cancellations – tennis, faculty sporting occasions, now the NBA, quickly many others – and focus on what different data would want to come up earlier than they made any additional choices.

“It felt like a domino, however we additionally didn’t wish to rush and name it off with out all the data,” Neal mentioned. “It was form of a sluggish loss of life by a thousand cuts.”

They hung up round 11 p.m. Wednesday, optimistic The Gamers might proceed as scheduled. One other assembly was on the books for the morning.

“I don’t assume any of us might have predicted that we probably wouldn’t be enjoying, however you’ll be able to’t wait till the final minute to begin speaking about that,” Neal mentioned. “It was extra like: That is critical, and tomorrow just isn’t going to be a traditional day on the golf course.”

Rory McIlroy throughout Spherical 1 of the 2020 Gamers Championship.

CONSIDER THE TOUR’S MOMENTUM heading into Thursday, March 12, and the opening spherical of its $15 million crown jewel: The profitable media rights deal had simply been introduced; Rory McIlroy, the reigning Participant of the 12 months, was the event’s defending champion; they had been launching an every-shot-live stream; and it was completely attractive that day in Ponte Vedra Seashore, with radiant sunshine, highs within the mid-70s and light-weight winds. Superb scoring situations – and the right setting for the roughly 40,000 followers they had been anticipating.

After a sleepless evening, Monahan arrived on the course round 6 a.m., eager to get his head proper. Jared Rice, govt director of The Gamers, stood across the first tee to observe the preliminary teams head off. “At that second, primarily based on what we knew, we felt ready to host followers safely,” he mentioned.

The scene felt regular, if not a bit fraught; CT Pan had presciently withdrawn and flown house to Texas, whereas that morning Lucas Glover sharply criticized the Tour’s determination to proceed on Twitter. “We had been exhausted, and there was simply the nervousness of monitoring what’s occurring,” Neal mentioned. “However you then get right here and it’s a golf event. Typically as soon as the primary ball is hit, you’ll be able to form of lean into the golf expertise itself.”

Every year Levinson and Andy Pazder, the chief of tournaments and competitors, work a volunteer shift collectively as event ambassadors. In an data sales space on the 18th gap, they direct followers to the loos or shortcuts to sure holes. However about 10 minutes earlier than their shift was supposed to begin, Levinson obtained a textual content from Pazder: “I’m not going to make it. I’ve received another issues to deal with.”

And so started a 14-hour disaster assembly. 

Levinson and the Tour’s medical adviser, Dr. Tom Hospel, started working the telephones and gathering the newest data, with each the White Home and the governor’s workplace voicing their assist for the precautionary measures they’d taken. Dennis peeled off with a smaller group within the guidelines officers’ workplace, tasked with discovering a technique to stage the remainder of the event with solely restricted personnel on-site. Tyler Dennis, senior VP and chief of operations on Tour, and his group designed a plan that reimagined the expertise from arrival to departure and rebuilt a volunteer construction that might have upwards of 800 folks in a typical day. Little did they understand they had been additionally drawing up a blueprint for methods to return in June. “That second grew to become a constructing block for a way we received again to enjoying,” Rice mentioned.

Contained in the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, Monahan was in fixed communication with well being and authorities officers on the native, state and federal ranges, in addition to event companions and sponsors within the Tour’s upcoming markets. With solely a handful of identified circumstances within the state and faculties in St. Johns County nonetheless open, there was an incongruousness to the decision-making course of. “The commissioner, as we had been speaking by way of followers, cancel or not cancel, he’s like, ‘I simply dropped my ladies off in school this morning. They’re sitting in a classroom.’” Neal mentioned. “It simply didn’t appear to be taking that drastic step to cancel it, that it was time but contemplating all the opposite regular exercise that was occurring.”

Laura Neal and Jay Monahan in Friday’s press convention on the 2020 Gamers.

So as a substitute, they took an intermediate step: Round midday, the Tour introduced that The Gamers would proceed as scheduled however with out spectators in attendance, a plan that additionally prolonged to the following three tournaments. “We had been comfy that, given the character of the virus, we in the end might stage the occasion,” Monahan mentioned. “We weren’t comfy that we had been going to have the ability to proceed that within the weeks that adopted.”

However that transfer did little to quell among the media protection that requested how the Tour might proceed to function. Gamers coming off the course started sounding the alarm, too. Bernd Wiesberger fretted about how he’d get house to Austria with rumors of nations imposing journey restrictions. Jon Rahm weighed the dangers of enjoying versus probably spreading the virus to these extra susceptible. McIlroy prompt that if the Tour had been to proceed, each participant and caddie within the subject would first must be examined. “As we speak’s overreaction might appear like tomorrow’s underreaction,” he cautioned.

That afternoon, the regular drumbeat of reports continued, in speedy succession: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis beneficial limiting mass gatherings. The NCAA canceled the lads’s and girls’s basketball tournaments. Soccer and hockey paused their seasons, whereas baseball worn out the remainder of spring coaching. Broadway suspended performances.

“That is all taking place in actual time,” Rice mentioned. “That is taking place so quick for all of us.”

Stress was mounting, however at 6:45 p.m., the Tour launched an in depth “operations replace” reaffirming its plans to proceed the event and outlining who could be allowed on property for the following three days. And but, Neal mentioned, “each quarter-hour it appeared like we had been listening to an increasing number of cancellations coming down the road.” None had a much bigger influence than the 8:30 p.m. bulletin from Disney World that it might shut down within the subsequent few days. “That’s an enormous deal within the state of Florida,” Dennis mentioned. “We mentioned, Wow, OK, that is actual.”

“We began to try: What are the advantages to enjoying? If we get to Sunday, what will we obtain? And if we simply cancel now, what have we achieved?” Neal mentioned. “If you in contrast the solutions to these two questions, one appeared, fairly frankly, a bit of egocentric, proper? So let’s not be the final to say we’re going to cancel. Let’s be a frontrunner.”

Although there was a sentiment amongst many gamers (together with these on the Tour’s Participant Advisory Council) that they need to preserve enjoying, as if to point out the world they may accomplish that safely, the virus had morphed from a enterprise downside right into a communications disaster.

That’s why, round 9 p.m., Neal wrote that query – What would affordable folks appropriately anticipate us to do? – on the wall.

That’s why she pressed the group to satisfy the expectations of those that mattered most: The followers and gamers.

That’s why the Tour finally pulled the plug.

“In the end,” Monahan mentioned, “we simply felt prefer it was the secure and accountable factor to do. And I feel that’s what an inexpensive individual would have anticipated us to do. I feel there’s definitely folks that assume {that a} affordable individual would have mentioned we must always have shut it down earlier. However I nonetheless really feel like we went by way of the suitable course of and got here to the suitable conclusion. We had been a bit of totally different in that we had been working in actual time, however I’m pleased with the best way that we received there.”

The remainder of the evening was hectic. Gamers and media had been notified through textual content and electronic mail. Dennis communicated with event administrators on the upcoming Tour stops. Neal sifted by way of a “textual content chain from hell.” Rice contemplated methods to assist serve the neighborhood with the entire unused catering and concessions. Levinson ready for his function on the Tour to drastically change.

And Monahan, effectively, it hit him on the quick drive house – the magnitude of what had occurred, the uncertainty that now engulfed his Tour. He barely slept that evening.

“There was no approach in case you’d informed me 10 days earlier than The Gamers Championship that’s what my Friday morning was going to appear like, or that I’d be in entrance of the media 3 times that week speaking a couple of pandemic,” Monahan mentioned. “It’s simply an incredible however actually unlucky and difficult sequence of occasions.”

Billy Horschel talks to the media as he leaves TPC Sawgrass.

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, gamers arrived at TPC Sawgrass not in logoed polos and tailor-made slacks, however in T-shirts and fitness center shorts. They cleaned out their lockers, answered a couple of questions from the media and headed again house, not sure when – or if – they’d return to competitors in 2020.

“Social distancing” was the buzzword of the occasions, however the media tent was standing-room-only when Monahan began yet one more information convention at 9 a.m. “I’m a fighter,” he mentioned in his opening remarks, however this was a battle in opposition to an unseen enemy that couldn’t be received, at the least not that day, and he wanted to relent. In an interview later that morning with NBC’s Mike Tirico, Monahan grew emotional when requested about his previous 48 hours.

Monahan will get emotional interested by final 48 hours

A yr later, that Friday nonetheless cuts deep.

 “I felt horrible,” he mentioned. “Like, we don’t shut down. We play each week, and I don’t bear in mind a time period the place, OK, I’m leaving right here, and I truly don’t know after we’re going to play a golf event once more. So, it didn’t really feel good.”

After a short assembly, Monahan drove house and hopped on his Peloton. He rode for 40 minutes, masking 14 miles, and cleared his head alongside the digital path. There was little time to sulk; by the weekend he had already began plotting the Tour’s return.

“It was, OK, now we have to begin considering by way of this,” Monahan mentioned. “Now we have to maintain that very same spirit into how we’re going to return. We will’t let up, as a result of the vital work goes to be finished within the coming days that in the end put you ready the place you’ll be able to return in a timeframe that’s each affordable however could be accelerated in case you apply your self.”

Monahan spent Gamers weekend calling the opposite main stakeholders within the sport, setting the muse for what would change into a bunch chat after which near-daily calls between golf’s 5 households. “It’s about collaborating. It’s about respect for one another,” Monahan mentioned. “And this was a chance to exhibit to the world that we might work successfully within the pursuits of our gamers, our followers after which our sport. That was a enjoyable and galvanizing problem.”

On the forefront had been two key points: revamping the season-long schedule and creating – from scratch – a well being and security plan to fight a novel illness and defend a touring bubble. Every was a large endeavor and offered its personal challenges.

The golf schedule is a Rubik’s Dice that sometimes takes a couple of years to resolve, however final spring Dennis and his group had weeks to search out frequent floor. (At one level, he was juggling a spreadsheet with greater than 50 variations of a schedule.) However it’s no coincidence that on April 6 – on what ought to have been the primary practice-round day of the Masters – they launched a brand new golf calendar, with the logos of the seven main associations atop the press launch. “I by no means thought in my life I’d see that day,” Neal mentioned. “Everybody was on this for the frequent good.”

The Grand Slam panorama has been dramatically uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic with golf’s main championship our bodies saying a schedule makeover.

Levinson, in the meantime, headed up the group that tackled the well being and security plan. The son of a health care provider, Levinson had no actual medical expertise, however he had overseen the Tour’s anti-doping program and now was tasked with serving to defend the Tour from an ever-evolving virus that had puzzled even veteran epidemiologists.

There have been loads of questions however few solutions. Working within the Tour’s favor was direct entry to the White Home Coronavirus Job Power, after Monahan was named to an financial advisory group that included U.S. sports activities leaders. By way of that partnership Monahan exchanged concepts with fellow commissioners and heard the newest intel from the CDC.

“Folks longed to get that pleasure again of their lives, and I consider this nation’s management acknowledged that on the time,” Levinson mentioned. “There was a willingness to work with us.”

The Tour’s chief concern was apparent: testing. In lots of elements of the U.S., dependable testing was briefly provide, and the Tour couldn’t be barnstorming the nation and draining beneficial sources from these communities. Additionally they wanted a testing resolution that might ship outcomes shortly – in a matter of hours, not days. The breakthrough got here when Levinson obtained a name from PGA Tour Champions president Miller Brady, who relayed that one in every of his circuit’s event sponsors, Sanford Well being, had developed a fleet of cell well being items. It’d remedy each points directly: The Tour might carry the sources with them from metropolis to metropolis, and the gear might produce leads to two hours.

“We mentioned, ‘That’s it,’” Levinson mentioned. “That’s our likelihood to return again.’”

A fan-less Colonial: Gamers weigh in on professionals and cons
A fan-less Colonial: Players weigh in on pros and cons

NINETY-ONE DAYS AFTER The Gamers was canceled, the Tour returned on the Charles Schwab Problem. For months all of the plans had been conceptual, however now right here they had been, flying into Fort Value, Texas, to start anew.

Like many, Levinson had fears of a super-spreader occasion, however what he noticed on the testing facility helped allay considerations: There was an orderly sequence of tents, with well-trained workers in full PPE. “It felt like a authentic operation,” Levinson mentioned. “It appeared like all the things was in place.”

Usually bustling with exercise, Colonial was eerily quiet, with 144 gamers within the subject and solely a handful of media allowed on property. It was the most secure golf event in historical past. When Daniel Berger hoisted the trophy, Tour execs stood across the 18th inexperienced, pleased with their accomplishment but in addition cautious of future complacency.

“As soon as we began enjoying once more, it grew to become: How are you going to guard this fragile bubble?” Neal mentioned. “All people had a really sturdy sense of obligation to guard what we had been making an attempt to do.”

It didn’t take lengthy for the Tour to expertise its first COVID-related scare. 5 rounds into the restart, Nick Watney awoke with an alert from his WHOOP health bracelet that confirmed irregular respiratory patterns, which is usually a symptom of COVID-19. Although he examined unfavorable upon arrival on Hilton Head, Watney requested one other check – and this time turned up optimistic. The Tour was geared up to deal with an remoted case, but it surely was nonetheless instructive.

“That was form of an alarming second,” Dennis mentioned. “All of us knew it was coming. And the plan labored.”

Per week later on the Vacationers: Extra positives. Extra withdrawals. And extra questions on whether or not the Tour’s return was sustainable. A minimum of one columnist known as for the Tour to close down once more.

“It form of felt like The Gamers Championship once more, the place the momentum and the dialog was: Ought to we be enjoying?” Neal mentioned. “However I give Jay a number of credit score for form of calming the waters, leaning into the specialists and what they had been telling us.”

Throughout a rapidly assembled digital information convention at TPC River Highlands, Monahan was determined in his perception that the Tour ought to proceed enjoying by way of the pandemic – however that extra diligence was required. That meant extra accountability among the many gamers and caddies. That meant mitigating threat as a lot as doable. That meant tightening the protocols – and even handing out punishment for many who ran afoul of the rules.

“That set an vital tone,” Monahan mentioned. “As onerous as that second felt, that’s the second that we had talked about taking place. We had been going to need to study to reside with the virus, as a result of you’ll be able to’t look forward to this downside to eradicate itself or go away. We had been nonetheless doing the suitable issues. However that was an intense day.”

Stated Neal: “There’s a positive line between panicking and overreacting and main. I feel we had been in a position to fortunately navigate it, however that was a tricky second.”

Scared straight, the Tour membership adopted Monahan’s lead. By way of the 2020 Tour Championship, the Tour carried out greater than 3,600 whole on-site exams for gamers and caddies. Solely 11 had been optimistic. They performed 25 occasions with none additional cancellations. Contemplating the numerous failures elsewhere, the Tour’s return was an unequivocal success and a mannequin for different leagues.

In an unprecedented show of cooperation, Monahan shared the Tour’s finest practices with different commissioners. Levinson, who had earned the nickname “Doc,” welcomed executives from different leagues to take a look at the Tour’s on-site procedures. Neal and her communications group consulted with the NBA, NFL and even the Westminster Canine Present to arrange a digital media middle operation.

“I feel that helped all people be capable to get again most likely sooner and perhaps much more safely with fewer errors,” Neal mentioned.

In fact, that is no time for a victory lap. Greater than 525,000 Individuals are useless. Jobs have been slashed throughout the business. Eleven tournaments had been canceled, with an untold impact on these native communities. Regular Tour life could not resume till 2022.

However a yr faraway from the dramatic shutdown, this week’s Gamers Championship additionally affords a pure reflection level. Taking part in by way of a world pandemic required ingenuity, flexibility and accountability – and in addition sturdy management in a lonely time of disaster. Golf was the among the many final main sports activities to close down and the primary to return. That it did so efficiently is an immense level of delight.

On Thursday, Monahan and his workers will masks up and head to the primary tee to kick off The Gamers, their focus squarely on the long run. Standing within the shadow of the Board Room, they’ll experience a event expertise they received’t ever once more take with no consideration.


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