Inside the PGA Tour’s shutdown at the 2020 Players Championship

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

How the novel coronavirus mushroomed from an international issue into a global pandemic.

How in the span of a day, they retreated from 40,000 maskless fans to no spectators to zero tournaments – period – for the next few months.

How commissioner Jay Monahan crashed from the high of the PGA Tour’s flagship event to driving home 24 hours later, his head spinning, wondering what the hell had just happened.

It was a professional crisis no one could have adequately prepared for, and it all unfolded here – in a dim, cozy conference room on the second floor of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Huddled inside the Board Room, surrounded by oil paintings of the former commissioners, the Tour’s executive leadership team met for more than 12 hours on March 12, 2020, trying to come to grips with an existential threat to their business.

On the television they could monitor both the first round of The Players Championship and the breaking-news chyrons on every major network. From the balcony they could watch thousands of fans stroll the lush grounds, buzzing from the day’s action (if not the $9 beers), seemingly oblivious to the chaos unfolding around them.

Schools were closing.

Businesses were ceasing operations.

Borders were locking down.

Those seated around the conference room table knew the direction they were headed, but the speed they arrived there, fueled by each bit of concerning news, was disorienting. By nightfall, golf was on an island as small as TPC Sawgrass’ 17th.

At the end of a marathon day of meetings, Laura Neal, the Tour’s senior vice president of communications and media content, remembered something she’d learned in a crisis communications class. On a giant pad of paper, she scribbled this question for the group to consider:

What would reasonable people appropriately expect us to do?

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

The answer was obvious.

“It’s over,” he said. “I think it’s over.”


Inside the day golf stood still at The Players

Inside the day golf stood still at The Players

THE STORY OF THE 2020 Players Championship shutdown is a blur, but also months in the making.

The first time Neal heard about COVID-19 was in December 2019, in a blurb on the front page of USA Today. Monahan read about it while traveling to Hawaii for the opening event; a month later, he was at Pebble Beach, meeting with titans of industry, and didn’t have a single conversation about the virus, despite the U.S. declaring a public health emergency on Jan. 31. The Tour’s crisis screening and executive crisis management teams each held meetings in February to discuss the potential impacts – even though they weren’t expected to be felt for another few months.

Once the Florida swing began, the Tour had implemented a few precautionary measures. Little was known at the time about the airborne nature of the virus, so the early steps focused on educating the membership and mitigating physical contact and surface transmission (adding sanitizing trees and hand-washing stations, placing continuously self-cleaning stickers on door handles). Players were discouraged from signing autographs, but events featured the usual galleries and media presence. When Tyrrell Hatton donned the traditional winner’s cardigan at Bay Hill, the virus still felt like a faraway storm, not an imminent threat.

On Monday of Players week, Monahan and Neal were on a media tour in New York City – in what would soon become the 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 waiting in the green room Monahan heard the guests preceding him predict a significant business impact.

“It was just a matter of when,” he said.



On camera, there was an awkward split screen: Monahan speaking optimistically about the Tour’s long-term stability while the stock market plummeted amid a deteriorating health crisis.

“It felt like we were right at the start of a huge news and global event,” Neal said. “It all kind of broke loose from there.”

But a thousand miles away, back at TPC Sawgrass, there was little sense the Tour’s biggest event would be affected. Following guidance from the CDC, the Chainsmokers performed Tuesday to a packed crowd surrounding the 17th hole. Monahan handed out cufflinks to the first-time participants. Eleven players held a pre-tournament news conference; only two questions – total – pertained to the virus. Monahan’s presser was more comprehensive, but he stressed they were still “full speed ahead” while exercising caution about what was a “very dynamic situation.”

Facing increased scrutiny, Andy Levinson, the senior vice president of tournament administration, met with medical advisers about the state of the virus. Compared to other sports, they still believed that golf enjoyed some built-in advantages because it was a non-contact activity spread out over hundreds of acres. Whether that was enough of a differentiator, they didn’t know for sure.

“At the time The Players started, we didn’t feel like it was going to impact the tournament,” Levinson said. “Obviously, that changed quickly.”


WEDNESDAY NIGHT OF 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 taken aback by how many guests had either no-showed or were leaving early the next morning.

Monahan had put away his phone to concentrate on the people there. When the last guest left, he turned it on and was flooded with notifications. One alert stood out: The NBA had suspended its season after a player tested positive. Video of the team’s head medical staffer sprinting onto the court was going viral.

“That was when I knew,” Monahan said, “that we had a bigger and more immediate problem.”

The Tour’s crisis management committee convened late that night to ensure that everyone was aware of the latest round of cancellations – tennis, college sporting events, now the NBA, soon many others – and discuss what other information would need to arise before they made any further decisions.

“It felt like a domino, but we also didn’t want to rush and call it off without all the information,” Neal said. “It was kind of a slow death by a thousand cuts.”

They hung up around 11 p.m. Wednesday, optimistic The Players could proceed as scheduled. Another meeting was on the books for the morning.

“I don’t think any of us could have predicted that we possibly wouldn’t be playing, but you can’t wait until the last minute to start talking about that,” Neal said. “It was more like: This is serious, and tomorrow is not going to be a normal day at the golf course.”


Rory McIlroy during Round 1 of the 2020 Players Championship.

 


CONSIDER THE TOUR’S MOMENTUM heading into Thursday, March 12, and the opening round of its $15 million crown jewel: The lucrative media rights deal had just been announced; Rory McIlroy, the reigning Player of the Year, was the tournament’s defending champion; they were launching an every-shot-live stream; and it was absolutely gorgeous that day in Ponte Vedra Beach, with radiant sunshine, highs in the mid-70s and light winds. Ideal scoring conditions – and the perfect setting for the roughly 40,000 fans they were anticipating.

After a sleepless night, Monahan arrived at the course around 6 a.m., wanting to get his head right. Jared Rice, executive director of The Players, stood around the first tee to watch the initial groups head off. “At that moment, based on what we knew, we felt prepared to host fans safely,” he said.

The scene felt normal, if not a bit fraught; CT Pan had presciently withdrawn and flown home to Texas, while that morning Lucas Glover sharply criticized the Tour’s decision to continue on Twitter. “We were exhausted, and there was just the anxiety of monitoring what’s going on,” Neal said. “But then you get here and it’s a golf tournament. Sometimes once the first ball is hit, you can sort of lean into the golf experience itself.”

Each year Levinson and Andy Pazder, the chief of tournaments and competition, work a volunteer shift together as tournament ambassadors. In an information booth on the 18th hole, they direct fans to the bathrooms or shortcuts to certain holes. But about 10 minutes before their shift was supposed to start, Levinson received a text from Pazder: “I’m not going to make it. I’ve got some other things to handle.”

And so began a 14-hour crisis meeting. 

Levinson and the Tour’s medical adviser, Dr. Tom Hospel, began working the phones and gathering the latest information, with both the White House and the governor’s office voicing their support for the precautionary measures they’d taken. Dennis peeled off with a smaller group in the rules officials’ office, tasked with finding a way to stage the rest of the tournament with only limited personnel on-site. Tyler Dennis, senior VP and chief of operations on Tour, and his team designed a plan that reimagined the experience from arrival to departure and rebuilt a volunteer structure that could have upwards of 800 people in a typical day. Little did they realize they were also drawing up a blueprint for how to return in June. “That moment became a building block for how we got back to playing,” Rice said.

Inside the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, Monahan was in constant communication with health and government officials at the local, state and federal levels, as well as tournament partners and sponsors in the Tour’s upcoming markets. With only a handful of known cases in the state and schools in St. Johns County still open, there was an incongruousness to the decision-making process. “The commissioner, as we were talking through fans, cancel or not cancel, he’s like, ‘I just dropped my girls off at school this morning. They’re sitting in a classroom.’” Neal said. “It just didn’t seem like taking that drastic step to cancel it, that it was time yet considering all the other normal activity that was going on.”


Laura Neal and Jay Monahan in Friday’s press conference at the 2020 Players.

 


So instead, they took an intermediate step: Around noon, the Tour announced that The Players would continue as scheduled but without spectators in attendance, a plan that also extended to the next three tournaments. “We were comfortable that, given the nature of the virus, we ultimately could stage the event,” Monahan said. “We weren’t comfortable that we were going to be able to continue that in the weeks that followed.”

But that move did little to quell some of the media coverage that asked how the Tour could continue to operate. Players coming off the course began sounding the alarm, too. Bernd Wiesberger fretted about how he’d get home to Austria with rumors of countries imposing travel restrictions. Jon Rahm weighed the risks of playing versus possibly spreading the virus to those more vulnerable. McIlroy suggested that if the Tour were to continue, every player and caddie in the field would first need to be tested. “Today’s overreaction could look like tomorrow’s underreaction,” he cautioned.

That afternoon, the steady drumbeat of news continued, in rapid succession: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended limiting mass gatherings. The NCAA 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,” Rice said. “This is happening so fast for all of us.”

Pressure was mounting, but at 6:45 p.m., the Tour released a detailed “operations update” reaffirming its plans to continue the tournament and outlining who would be allowed on property for the next three days. And yet, Neal said, “every 15 minutes it seemed like we were hearing more and more cancellations coming down the line.” None had a bigger impact than the 8:30 p.m. bulletin from Disney World that it would shut down in the next few days. “That’s a big deal in the state of Florida,” Dennis said. “We said, Wow, OK, this is real.”

“We started to take a look at: What are the benefits to playing? If we get to Sunday, what do we achieve? And if we just cancel now, what have we achieved?” Neal said. “When you compared the answers to those two questions, one seemed, quite frankly, a little selfish, right? So let’s not be the last to say we’re going to cancel. Let’s be a leader.”

Though there was a sentiment among many players (including those on the Tour’s Player Advisory Council) that they should keep playing, as if to show the world they could do so safely, the virus had morphed from a business problem into a communications crisis.

That’s why, around 9 p.m., Neal wrote that question – What would reasonable people appropriately expect us to do? – on the wall.

That’s why she pressed the group to meet the expectations of those who mattered most: The fans and players.

That’s why the Tour eventually pulled the plug.

“Ultimately,” Monahan said, “we just felt like it was the safe and responsible thing to do. And I think that is what a reasonable person would have expected us to do. I think there’s certainly people that think that a reasonable person would have said we should have shut it down earlier. But I still feel like we went through the right process and came to the right conclusion. We were a little different in that we were operating in real time, but I’m proud of the way that we got there.”

The rest of the night was hectic. Players and media were notified via text and email. Dennis communicated with tournament directors at the upcoming Tour stops. Neal sifted through a “text chain from hell.” Rice contemplated how to help serve the community with all of the unused catering and concessions. Levinson prepared for his role at the Tour to drastically change.

And Monahan, well, it hit him on the short drive home – the magnitude of what had happened, the uncertainty that now engulfed his Tour. He barely slept that night.

“There was no way if you’d told me 10 days before The Players Championship that’s what my Friday morning was going to look like, or that I would be in front of the media three times that week talking about a pandemic,” Monahan said. “It’s just an amazing but really unfortunate and challenging sequence of events.”


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

 


EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, players arrived at TPC Sawgrass not in logoed polos and tailored slacks, but in T-shirts and gym shorts. They cleaned out their lockers, answered a few questions from the media and headed back home, unsure when – or if – they’d return to competition in 2020.

“Social distancing” was the buzzword of the times, but the media tent was standing-room-only when Monahan started yet another news conference at 9 a.m. “I’m a fighter,” he said in his opening remarks, but this was a battle against an unseen enemy that couldn’t be won, at least not that day, and he needed to relent. In an interview later that morning with NBC’s Mike Tirico, Monahan grew emotional when asked about his past 48 hours.


Monahan gets emotional thinking about last 48 hours

Monahan gets emotional thinking about last 48 hours

A year later, that Friday still cuts deep.

 “I felt terrible,” he said. “Like, we don’t shut down. We play every week, and I don’t remember a period of time where, OK, I’m leaving here, and I actually don’t know when we’re going to play a golf tournament again. So, it didn’t feel good.”

After a brief meeting, Monahan drove home and hopped on his Peloton. He rode for 40 minutes, covering 14 miles, and cleared his head along the virtual path. There was little time to sulk; by the weekend he had already started plotting the Tour’s return.

“It was, OK, now we need to start thinking through this,” Monahan said. “We have to keep that same spirit into how we’re going to return. We can’t let up, because the important work is going to be done in the coming days that ultimately put you in a position where you can return in a timeframe that is both reasonable but might be accelerated if you apply yourself.”

Monahan spent Players weekend calling the other leading stakeholders in the game, setting the foundation for what would become a group chat and then near-daily calls between golf’s five families. “It’s about collaborating. It’s about respect for each other,” Monahan said. “And this was an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we could work effectively in the interests of our players, our fans and then our sport. That was a fun and inspiring challenge.”

At the forefront were two key issues: revamping the season-long schedule and developing – from scratch – a health and safety plan to combat a novel disease and protect a traveling bubble. Each was a massive undertaking and presented its own challenges.

The golf schedule is a Rubik’s Cube that typically takes a few years to solve, but last spring Dennis and his team had weeks to find common ground. (At one point, he was juggling a spreadsheet with more than 50 versions of a schedule.) But it’s no coincidence that on April 6 – on what should have been the first practice-round day of the Masters – they released a new golf calendar, with the logos of the seven major associations atop the press release. “I never thought in my life I would see that day,” Neal said. “Everyone was in this for the common good.”

The Grand Slam landscape has been dramatically uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic with golf’s major championship bodies announcing a schedule makeover.

Levinson, meanwhile, headed up the team that tackled the health and safety plan. The son of a doctor, Levinson had no real medical experience, but he had overseen the Tour’s anti-doping program and now was tasked with helping shield the Tour from an ever-evolving virus that had puzzled even veteran epidemiologists.

There were plenty of questions but few answers. Working in the Tour’s favor was direct access to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, after Monahan was named to an economic advisory group that included U.S. sports leaders. Through that partnership Monahan exchanged ideas with fellow commissioners and heard the latest intel from the CDC.

“People longed to get that excitement back in their lives, and I believe this country’s leadership recognized that at the time,” Levinson said. “There was a willingness to work with us.”

The Tour’s chief issue was obvious: testing. In many parts of the U.S., reliable testing was in short supply, and the Tour couldn’t be barnstorming the country and draining valuable resources from those communities. They also needed a testing solution that could deliver results quickly – in a matter of hours, not days. The breakthrough came when Levinson received a call from PGA Tour Champions president Miller Brady, who relayed that one of his circuit’s tournament sponsors, Sanford Health, had developed a fleet of mobile health units. It’d solve both issues at once: The Tour could bring the resources with them from city to city, and the equipment could produce results in two hours.

“We said, ‘That’s it,’” Levinson said. “That’s our chance to come back.’”


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

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

NINETY-ONE DAYS AFTER The Players was canceled, the Tour returned at the Charles Schwab Challenge. For months all the plans had been conceptual, but now here they were, flying into Fort Worth, Texas, to begin anew.

Like many, Levinson had fears of a super-spreader event, but what he saw at the testing facility helped allay concerns: There was an orderly series of tents, with well-trained staff in full PPE. “It felt like a legitimate operation,” Levinson said. “It seemed like everything was in place.”

Normally bustling with activity, Colonial was eerily quiet, with 144 players in the field and only a handful of media allowed on property. It was the safest golf tournament in history. When Daniel Berger hoisted the trophy, Tour execs stood around the 18th green, proud of their accomplishment but also wary of future complacency.

“Once we started playing again, it became: How are you going to protect this fragile bubble?” Neal said. “Everybody had a very strong sense of duty to protect what we were trying to do.”

It didn’t take long for the Tour to experience its first COVID-related scare. Five rounds into the restart, Nick Watney awoke with an alert from his WHOOP fitness bracelet that showed irregular breathing patterns, which can be a symptom of COVID-19. Though he tested negative upon arrival on Hilton Head, Watney requested another test – and this time turned up positive. The Tour was equipped to handle an isolated case, but it was nonetheless instructive.

“That was kind of an alarming moment,” Dennis said. “We all knew it was coming. And the plan worked.”

A week later at the Travelers: More positives. More withdrawals. And more questions about whether the Tour’s return was sustainable. At least one columnist called for the Tour to shut down again.

“It kind of felt like The Players Championship again, where the momentum and the conversation was: Should we be playing?” Neal said. “But I give Jay a lot of credit for kind of calming the waters, leaning into the experts and what they were telling us.”

During a hastily assembled virtual news conference at TPC River Highlands, Monahan was resolute in his belief that the Tour should continue playing through the pandemic – but that more diligence was required. That meant more accountability among the players and caddies. That meant mitigating risk as much as possible. That meant tightening the protocols – and even handing out punishment for those who ran afoul of the guidelines.

“That set an important tone,” Monahan said. “As hard as that moment felt, that’s the moment that we had talked about happening. We were going to have to learn to live with the virus, because you can’t wait for this problem to eradicate itself or go away. We were still doing the right things. But that was an intense day.”

Said Neal: “There’s a fine line between panicking and overreacting and leading. I think we were able to luckily navigate it, but that was a tough moment.”

Scared straight, the Tour membership followed Monahan’s lead. Through the 2020 Tour Championship, the Tour conducted more than 3,600 total on-site tests for players and caddies. Only 11 were positive. They played 25 events without any further cancellations. Considering the many failures elsewhere, the Tour’s return was an unequivocal success and a model for other leagues.

In an unprecedented display of cooperation, Monahan shared the Tour’s best practices with other commissioners. Levinson, who had earned the nickname “Doc,” welcomed executives from other leagues to check out the Tour’s on-site procedures. Neal and her communications team consulted with the NBA, NFL and even the Westminster Dog Show to set up a virtual media center operation.

“I think that helped everybody be able to get back probably sooner and maybe even more safely with fewer mistakes,” Neal said.

Of course, this is no time for a victory lap. More than 525,000 Americans are dead. Jobs have been slashed across the industry. Eleven tournaments were canceled, with an untold effect on those local communities. Normal Tour life may not resume until 2022.

But a year removed from the dramatic shutdown, this week’s Players Championship also offers a natural reflection point. Playing through a global pandemic required ingenuity, flexibility and accountability – and also strong leadership in a lonely time of crisis. Golf was the among the last major sports to shut down and the first to return. That it did so successfully is an immense point of pride.

On Thursday, Monahan and his staff will mask up and head to the first tee to kick off The Players, their focus squarely on the future. Standing in the shadow of the Board Room, they’ll revel in a tournament experience they won’t ever again take for granted.