Well, that’s one blow to the argument that golf is a sport. Sports are canceled, but golf is not.
The golf world put all its events in a dice shaker, and this is how they rolled out: PGA Championship in August, U.S. Open in September, Ryder Cup a week after the U.S. Open, Masters in November. The British Open rolled off the table and onto the floor somewhere. Nobody will find it until next year.
With COVID-19 crippling the nation, this schedule feels ridiculously optimistic, another timeline built on faith more than science. But it could actually work.
There are two questions here:
1. Can they play golf?
2. Can they play golf in front of people?
There are reasons to be optimistic about the first question. Golf is different from other sports. It takes place in the great outdoors, with no physical contact between participants. Competitors can stay a safe distance from each other, which previously only mattered when Brooks Koepka was paired with Bryson DeChambeau. So yes, it is possible that people will be able to play golf this fall, maybe even this summer. We don’t know that. But it’s possible.
The second question has a very different answer. To stage a golf tournament in front of full galleries, we probably need a coronavirus vaccine. Even if we have an extreme reduction in coronavirus cases, it would probably be too risky. Gathering tens of thousands of people in the same place is just one enormous request for a surge of infections.
And this is where at least one of golf’s governing bodies still doesn’t get it. The USGA announced that tickets for the U.S. Open will still be honored. Augusta National released a more nuanced answer: “We want to emphasize that our future plans are incumbent upon favorable counsel and direction from health officials.” ANGC added that it hopes to “welcome all existing ticket holders to enjoy the excitement of Masters week.” The PGA of America did not make any mention of fans in its release, but spokesperson Julius Mason wrote in an email, “We will closely monitor developments and, of course, will follow the guidance of public health authorities, but we remain hopeful that we will be welcoming fans.”
If governing bodies are willing to stage tournaments without fans, then every one of them should have acknowledged it publicly. No hopes, no ifs, no emphasis on ticket policies. We don’t know how the world will look in four or five months, but it is extremely likely that mass gatherings will be a terrible idea.
Everybody staging a golf tournament in 2020 should plan on not having fans there. So, say that up front. Make it clear. In fact, make that part of the pitch: “We are determined to be safe and smart, along with providing entertainment and getting back to work. So we are fully prepared to hold tournaments without galleries.” And if, for some reason, we all get lucky and the pandemic has passed by then, honor the tickets. People will come.
California governor Gavin Newsom said he doesn’t expect his state to host NFL games in September. How can San Francisco host a crowd-filled PGA in August?
These statements did not all strike the same tone, which speaks to the unusual structure of golf and the different approaches of the organizations involved. Unlike the NFL or NBA, golf has a lot of branches of power, and they have different cultures and different messaging skills.
The USGA sounds more interested in protecting the sanctity of par than the public. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which runs the British Open, must deal with a different population and its politicians. The PGA of America, which said nothing about tickets, has the least clout. Augusta National owns the Masters, doesn’t need anybody’s money, and can do what is right and makes the club look good. This explains the cautious approach. The PGA Tour runs a lot of events and has a lot more to figure out.
These organizations could have done everybody a favor with a joint statement about no-spectator golf. That would prep the public for what is coming, and it would let us know that health and safety really are the top priorities. We may get championship golf this year. Just don’t expect to see it in person.