PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida – A year later, they remember the dizzying speed.
How they went from 40,000 maskless fans to no spectators in one day and stopped playing tournaments for the next several months .
How Commissioner Jay Monahan rushed home from the high point of the PGA Tour’s flagship event 24 hours later, wondering what the hell had just happened.
It was a professional crisis no one adequately addressed could have prepared, and everything went right here – in a dark, cozy conference room on the second floor of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. In the boardroom, surrounded by oil paintings by the former commissioners, the tour’s leadership team met for more than 12 hours on March 12, 2020 to get a grasp of an existential threat to their business.
On television, they were able to see both the Follow the first round of the Players Championship as well as the Chyrons of the latest news on all major networks. From the balcony, they could watch thousands of fans strolling the lush grounds humming from the day’s action (if not the $ 9 beers) without realizing the chaos that was going on around them > Those at the conference table knew which way they were going, but the speed at which they got there was confusing. By dark, golf on an island was as small as TPC Sawgrass ’17.
At the end of a day of marathon, Laura Neal, senior vice president of communications and media content for the tour, recalled something she had learned in a crisis communications class . She scribbled this question on a huge pad of paper for the group to consider:
Monahan had been in and out of the room, taking calls, listening to the latest updates, and making a plan. Then he walked in, took a look at that question on the wall, and paused for a moment.
THE STORY OF THE 2020 Players Championship shutdown is a blur but also months in development.
The first time That Neal heard about COVID-19 was in a blurb on the front page of USA Today in December 2019. Monahan read about it when he traveled to Hawaii for the opening event. He was in Pebble Beach a month later, meeting with titans of the industry and not having a single conversation about the virus, despite the U.S. declaring a public health emergency on Jan. 31, with each meeting held in February to assess the potential impact to discuss – even if they weren’t felt for a few months.
When the Florida swing began, the tour had taken some precautionary measures. Little was known about the nature of the virus in the air at the time, so first steps focused on educating members and reducing physical contact and surface transmission (adding disinfection trees and hand washing stations, putting self-cleaning stickers on door handles) . . Players were prevented from signing autographs, but the events featured the usual galleries and media exposure. When Tyrrell Hatton donned the winner’s traditional cardigan at Bay Hill, the virus still felt like a storm far away, not an imminent threat.
On the Monday of Players Week, Monahan and Neal were on a media tour in New York City – in the soon-to-be COVID-19 epicenter – to trumpet the tour’s new media rights deal. The virus was the main topic of discussion on CNBC after a weekend of COVID-related headlines, and while Monahan waited in the green room, he heard the guests in front of him predict a significant business impact.
There was an awkward one on camera Split Screen: Monahan was optimistic about the long-term stability of the tour as the stock market slumped in a worsening health crisis.
« It felt like we were about to start some big news and global event, » said Neal . « From there, everything kind of broke loose. »
But a thousand miles away, back at TPC Sawgrass, there was little point in the biggest event of the tour being affected. At the direction of the CDC, the Chainsmokers performed in front of a crowd surrounding the 17th hole on Tuesday. Monahan distributed cufflinks to first-time participants. Eleven players held a press conference prior to the tournament. Only two questions – in total – were about the virus. Monahan’s press was more extensive, but he insisted they were still « full speed ahead » while exercising caution, which was a « very dynamic situation ».
Andy Levinson, Senior Vice President of Tournament Administration, met with increasing advisers on the condition of the virus. Compared to other sports, they still believed that golf had some built-in benefits as it was a non-contact activity that spanned hundreds of acres. They weren’t sure if that was a differentiator.
« At the time the players started, we didn’t think that would affect the tournament, » said Levinson. « Obviously that changed quickly. »
WEDNESDAY NIGHT OF THE TOURNAMENT week was the commissioner’s annual party at his house. It’s Monahan’s way of welcoming international partners and sponsors into town, but he was amazed at how many guests either didn’t show up the next morning or left early.
Monahan had put his cell phone down to check on the People focus there. When the last guest left, he turned it on and was flooded with notifications. A warning was raised: The NBA had suspended their season after a player tested positive. The video of the team’s senior medical officer sprinting onto the pitch went viral.
« I knew then, » said Monahan, « that we had a bigger and more immediate problem. »
The Crisis Management Committee The tour met late at night to make sure everyone was aware of the latest cancellations – tennis, college sports events, now the NBA, many others soon – and to discuss what more information would be needed before making any further decisions .
« It felt like dominoes, but we also didn’t want to rush and cancel it without any information, » said Neal. « It was kind of a slow death by a thousand cuts. »
They hung up around 11pm. Wednesday, optimistic The players could proceed as planned. Another meeting was on the books for the morning.
« I don’t think either of us could have predicted that we might not play, but you can’t wait until the last minute to talk about it » said Neal. « It was more like this: This is serious and tomorrow is not going to be a normal day on the golf course. »
Take a look at the MOMENTUM DER TOUR on Thursday, March 12, and the opening round of its $ 15 million crown jewel: The lucrative media rights agreement has just been announced. Reigning Player of the Year Rory McIlroy was the tournament’s defending champion. They started a live stream for every shot. and it was absolutely beautiful that day at Ponte Vedra Beach, with bright sunshine, mid-70s highs and light winds. Ideal goal conditions – and the perfect backdrop for the around 40,000 expected fans.
After a sleepless night, Monahan arrived on the course around 6 a.m. and wanted to get his head right. Jared Rice, Executive Director of The Players, stood around the first tee and watched the first groups drive off. « At that moment, based on what we knew, we felt ready to safely accommodate fans, » he said.
The scene felt normal, if not a bit crowded; CT Pan had deliberately withdrawn and flown to Texas, while Lucas Glover harshly criticized the tour’s decision to continue on Twitter that morning. « We were exhausted and there was just a fear of monitoring what was going on, » said Neal. « But then you come here and it’s a golf tournament. Sometimes when the first ball is hit you can lean into the golf experience. »
Every year Levinson and Andy Pazder, the boss for tournaments and competitions, work together as a tournament ambassador on a voluntary shift. At an information booth at the 18th hole they direct the fans to the bathrooms or certain holes. But about 10 minutes before their shift was due to start, Levinson received a text from Pazder: « I won’t make it. I have a few other things to do. «
Levinson and the tour’s medical advisor, Dr. Tom Hospel, began working on the phones collecting the latest information, with both the White House and the governor’s office offering their support for those they seized Precautions. Dennis peeled off with a smaller group in the rules office to find a way to host the rest of the tournament with limited on-site staff. Tyler Dennis, Senior VP and Chief of Operations on tour, and his team devised a plan that reinterpreted the arrival-to-departure experience, building a volunteer structure that could accommodate more than 800 people on a typical day, barely realizing that they were also drafting a return plan in June. « That moment became one of the building blocks for how we could play again, » said Rice.
At the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, Monahan was in constant communication with Local, state, and state health and government officials, as well as with tournament partners and sponsors in the tour’s upcoming markets. With only a handful of known cases open in the state and schools in St. Johns County, the decision-making process was inappropriate. « When we talked about fans canceling or not canceling, the commissioner said: » I dropped my girls off at school this morning. You are sitting in a classroom. « Neal said. » It just didn’t seem like taking this drastic step to break it off. It was time to consider all the other normal activities. «
Instead, they took an intermediate step: around noon, the tour announced that the players would continue as planned, but with no spectators, a plan that worked « We were certain that, given the nature of the virus, we could ultimately stage the event, » said Monahan. « We did not feel comfortable that we could continue this in the following weeks. »
This move did little to suppress some of the media coverage asking how the tour could go on. Players who left the pitch also started sounding the alarm. Bernd Wiesberger was annoyed about how he would return to Austria with rumors of countries imposing travel restrictions Jon Rahm weighed the risk of gambling and possibly spread the virus on the weak here. McIlroy suggested that every player and caddy on the field would need to be tested first if the tour is to continue. « Today’s overreaction might look like tomorrow’s underreaction, » he warned.
That afternoon, the news continued to exchange blows in rapid succession: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recommended that mass gatherings be curtailed. The NCAA has canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Soccer and hockey paused their seasons, while baseball wiped out the rest of spring training. Broadway suspended performances.
« This is all happening in real time, » said Rice. “It’s so quick for all of us.”
The pressure built up, but at 6.45pm the tour released a detailed “Operations Update” confirming their plans to continue the tournament and who was for the next may be on the property for three days. And yet Neal said: « Every 15 minutes it seemed like we were hearing more and more rejections. » No one had a bigger impact than 8:30 p.m. Disney World bulletin that it would be closed in the next few days. « This is a big thing in Florida, » said Dennis. “We said, Wow, OK, that’s real.”
“We started looking at each other: What are the benefits of playing? What do we achieve when we get to Sunday? And if we just cancel now, what have we achieved? “Said Neal. “When you compared the answers to these two questions, one honestly seemed a little selfish, didn’t it? So let’s not be the last to say we are going to cancel. Let’s be a leader. «
Although many players (including those on the Tour’s Player Advisory Board) felt they should keep playing to show the world that they can do it safely, the virus had gone from a business problem to a communications crisis.
So around 9 p.m. Neal wrote this question: What would reasonable people reasonably expect from us? – on the wall.
So she urged the group to live up to the expectations of those who mattered most: the fans and players.
« Ultimately, » said Monahan, « we just felt it was the safe and responsible thing. » And I think a sane person would have expected that from us. I think there certainly is People who think a sane person would have said we should have closed it earlier. But I still feel like we went through the right process and came to the right conclusion. We were a bit a nders because we worked in real time but I’m proud of the way we got there. «
The rest of the night was hectic. Players and media were notified via text and email. Dennis communicated with the tournament directors at the upcoming tour stops. Neal searched a » string of text from hell « . Rice pondered as he did Community could help with all the unused catering and concessions. Levinson was preparing that his role on the tour would change drastically.
And Monahan, well, it hit him on the short drive home – the extent of what had happened, the uncertainty now engulfing his tour. He barely slept that night.
« There was no way if you had told me 10 days before the Players Championship that my Friday morning would look like this or that I would stand in front of the media three times this week to talk about a pandemic, « said Monahan. » It’s just an amazing, but really unfortunate and challenging series of events. «
Early next Tomorrow the players arrived at TPC Sawgrass, not in logo polos and tailored pants, but in t-shirts and gym shorts. They cleaned up their lockers, answered some media questions, and went home. They weren’t sure when – or if – they’d return to the competition in 2020.
« Social distancing » was the buzzword of the time, but the media tent was just standing room when Monahan kicked off another press conference at 9am. « I’m a fighter, » he said in his opening speeches, but this was a fight against an invisible enemy that couldn’t be won, at least not that day, and he had to give in. In an interview later that morning with NBC’s Mike Tirico, Monahan got emotional when asked about his past 48 hours.
Monahan gets emotional thinking over the past 48 hours
« I felt terrible, » he said. « We’re not closing. We play every week and I don’t remember a period of time leaving here and I don’t really know when we’re going to play another golf tournament. So it didn’t feel good. »After a brief meeting, Monahan drove home and jumped on his peloton. He drove 40 minutes, covered 14 miles, and cleared his head on the virtual path. There was little time to pout; At the weekend he had already started planning the tour’s return.
« It was, OK, now we have to think about it, » said Monahan. « We have to keep the same spirit as we are going to return. We can’t let go as the important work will be done in the days ahead that will ultimately enable you to return in a time frame that is both reasonable and expedited. » can be if you apply. «
Monahan spent the player weekend calling the game’s other leading stakeholders to lay the groundwork for a group chat and then telephoning the five golfing families almost daily. « It’s about working together. It’s about mutual respect, » said Monahan. « And this was an opportunity to show the world that we can work effectively in the interests of our players, our fans and then our sport. It was fun and inspiring challenge. «
The focus was on two main topics: revising the seasonal plan and developing a health and safety plan to combat a novel disease and protect a travel bubble. Each was a daunting undertaking and presented its own challenges.
The golf schedule is a Rubik’s Cube that usually takes a few years to solve, but last spring Dennis and his team had weeks to find common ground (at one point he juggled a table with more than 50 versions of a schedule) but it is It is no coincidence that on April 6th – the day on which the first training day of the Masters should have taken place – a new one Golf calendars were brought out with the logos of the seven major associations on the press release. « I never thought I’d see that day in my life, » said Neal. « Everyone was there for the common good. »
The Grand Slam landscape was dramatically uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic. The main championship bodies of golf announced a revision of the schedule.
Meanwhile, Levinson led the team that dealt with the health and safety plan. Levinson, the son of a doctor, had no real medical experience, but he had overseen the Tour’s anti-doping program and was now tasked with protecting the Tour from an evolving virus that had confused even seasoned epidemiologists / p> There were many questions, but few answers. Direct access to the White House’s coronavirus task force worked in favor of the tour after Monahan was appointed to an economic advisory group that included U.S. sports leaders. Through this partnership, Monahan exchanged ideas with fellow commissioners and heard the latest information from the CDC.
« People longed to bring that excitement back into their lives, and I believe the leadership of this country did then recognized, « said Levinson. « There was a willingness to work with us. »
The main problem with the tour was obvious: testing. Reliable testing was in short supply in many parts of the United States, and the tour failed to storm the country and divert valuable resources from these communities. They also needed a testing solution that could deliver results quickly – in hours, not days. The breakthrough came when Levinson received a call from Miller Brady, President of the PGA Tour Champions, saying that one of his circuit’s tournament sponsors, Sanford Health, had developed a fleet of mobile health units. Both problems would be solved at the same time: the tour could bring the resources from town to town, and the equipment could produce results in two hours.
A fanless colonialist: the players weigh the pros and cons
Ninety-one days after the players were canceled, the tour returned at the Charles Schwab Challenge. All plans had been conceptual for months, but now they were flying to Fort Worth, Texas to start over.
Like many others, Levinson was scared of a super-spreader event, but what he saw at the test facility helped To address the concerns: There were a decent row of tents with well-trained staff in full PPE. « It felt like legitimate surgery, » Levinson said. “It seemed like everything was in place.”
Usually Colonial was full of activity and creepily quiet with 144 players on the field and only a handful of media allowed on the property. It was the safest golf tournament in history. When Daniel Berger picked up the trophy, the tour managers were standing around the 18th green, proud of their performance but also concerned about future complacency.
« When we started playing again, it became: How are you going to do this protect fragile bladder? » Said Neal. « Everyone had a very strong sense of duty to protect what we were trying to do. »
It wasn’t long before the tour experienced its first COVID-related horror. Five laps after the restart, Nick Watney woke up to a warning from his WHOOP fitness bracelet showing irregular breathing patterns that can be a symptom of COVID-19. Despite testing negative upon arrival at Hilton Head, Watney requested another test – and this time it was positive. The tour was prepared for the individual case, but still instructive.
« That was an alarming moment, » said Dennis. “We all knew it was coming. And the plan worked. “
A week later with the Travelers: More positive things. Further withdrawals. And even more questions as to whether the return of the tour was sustainable. At least one columnist called for the tour to end again.
« It felt like the Players Championship again, where the momentum and the conversation were: should we play? » Said Neal. « But I give Jay a lot of credit for calming the water, leaning on the experts, and what they told us. »
During a hastily assembled virtual press conference at the TPC River Highlands, Monahan was firmly convinced that the tour should continue to play through the pandemic – but that more care was required. That meant more accountability among the players and caddies. That meant reducing the risk as much as possible. That meant tightening the protocols – and even punishing those who violated the guidelines.
« That set an important tone, » said Monahan. « As hard as that moment felt, this is the moment we talked about. We had to learn to live with the virus because you can’t wait for this problem to go away or go away on its own. We still have done the right things. But it was an intense day. «
Neal said, » There is a fine line between panic and overreaction and leadership. I think we were fortunate enough to find our way around it, but that was a difficult moment. “
Tour membership followed Monahan’s lead. During the 2020 Tour Championship, the Tour conducted a total of more than 3,600 on-site tests for players and caddies. Only 11 were positive. They played 25 events with no further cancellations. Given the many failures elsewhere, the tour’s return was a definite success and a model for other leagues.
In an unprecedented collaboration, Monahan shared the tour’s best practices with fellow commissioners. Levinson, nicknamed « Doc, » welcomed executives from other leagues to review the on-site operations of the tour. Neal and her communications team consulted with the NBA, the NFL, and even the Westminster Dog Show to set up a virtual media center.
« I think this has helped everyone, probably sooner, and maybe even safer, with fewer mistakes come, « said Neal.
Of course, this is no time for a winning lap. More than 525,000 Americans are dead. Jobs have been cut across the industry. Eleven tournaments were canceled, which did not affect these local communities. Normal touring life cannot resume until 2022.
But one year before the dramatic standstill, this week’s Players Championship also offers a natural point of reflection. Playing through a global pandemic required ingenuity, flexibility, and accountability – as well as strong leadership in a lonely time of crisis. Golf was one of the last great sports to be retired and the first to return. That it was so successful is immense pride.
On Thursday, Monahan and his staff will mask themselves and go to the first tee to start The Players, fully focused on the future. When you’re in the shade of the boardroom, you’ll enjoy a tournament experience you’ll never take for granted again.
BY Brentley Romine
FROM Mercer Baggs
BY Brentley Romine
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