PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. | Fans scattered around the ninth green saw Hideki Matsuyama finish with a 25-foot eagle putt to tie the course record and take the lead at The Players Championship.
Spectators filled the theater around the dynamic 16th and 17th holes at the TPC Sawgrass to see Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka salvage rough starts.
After Thursday, that’s all they’ll see — for the rest of the week at The Players and for at least the next month on the PGA Tour.
“At least they got to enjoy themselves for one day,” McIlroy said. “Now it’s going to look a little different.”
Even with the best in the world competing for the richest purse in golf, The Players Championship felt like an afterthought amid rapid developments with the new coronavirus that led sports around the world to stop playing.
The PGA Tour decided Thursday night to scrap the rest of The Players Championship and shut down its other tournaments for the next three weeks.
Commissioner Jay Monahan had said earlier Thursday there would be no fans at the TPC Sawgrass for the final three rounds, or at the next three tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule.
The tour changed its mind late Thursday.
“We did everything possible to create a safe environment for our players in order to continue the event through the weekend,” the tour said in a statement. “But at his point — and as the situation continues to rapidly change — the right thing to do for our players and our fans is to pause.”
There was no immediately word whether The Players Championship would be rescheduled.
The Players Championship is the premier tournament run by the PGA Tour, offering a $15 million purse, the richest in golf history. It was to be followed by the Valspar Championship in the Tampa Bay area, the Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, and the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio.
Fans won’t be around to bet with each other on who hits the island green on the par-3 17th. Players won’t be able to sense whether shots funnel toward the hole with no noise from the gallery to tell them. No cheers. No jeers.
“That’s what makes this golf course so fun, so exciting, is all the fans cheering and booing when you hit a bad shot,” Koepka said after birdies on three of his last four holes for a 70. “That’s what you want. You want that excitement, that aura around you.”
The crowd was thinner than usual, even by Thursday morning standards. Players were alerted late Wednesday to prepare to play, even as the NBA announced it was suspending its season and other sports leagues followed.
Before long, the tour decided to keep fans and players away.
Matsuyama opened with four straight birdies and closed with a 3-wood into 25 feet for eagle and a 9-under 63, the ninth player to share the record at Sawgrass. He had a two-shot lead over Harris English, former winner Si Woo Kim and Christiaan Bezuidenhout of South Africa. For much of the day, they were just names and numbers on the scoreboard.
Graeme McDowell described a somber mood in the locker room and on the range as he tried to get warmed up.
“We just don’t really know how to react and didn’t really know what to expect,” McDowell said after a 68, his best score in his last 20 rounds at Sawgrass. “At one point, I was nearly expecting the horns to go off out there for us all to be taken off the golf course.”
Jordan Spieth, who shot 75 as his struggles showed few signs of improving, wasn’t aware of the decision when he teed off. He first caught wind during an exchange with a fan that made him pause.
“Guys were saying, ‘We’re going to miss you guys this weekend’ during the middle of the round,” Spieth said. “We thought that was kind of rude, meaning we’re not going to be here this weekend. Then I realized when I was told that they said there’s no spectators the rest of the week.”
Fans who made it into the tournament Thursday were told no autographs were allowed. They weren’t asked to leave when the tour decided to ban spectators, and people were still coming into the course in the afternoon.
McIlroy, who’s had hand sanitizer attached to his bag for the last two weeks, approved of the original decision to ban fans. However, he said it would only take one player or caddie to be tested positive for the virus and he felt the tour would have to shut down.
“I think for us to keep playing on tour, we all — the tour players and people that are involved — need to get tested,” he said.
As for the golf? Fans saw plenty of birdies, eagles and only three balls in the water on the 17th.
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