Up in smoke: Tour finally calls it quits

by | Mar 13, 2020 | 0 comments

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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So, it’s official, The Players Championship has been cancelled, along with every PGA Tour event up to and including the Valero Texas Open. And while obviously disappointing from a personal point of view – holed up at home with no sport to watch and an internet connection that has terrifyingly decided to play up – it is of course the right decision.

The right decision, but realistically, it came a day too late.

By Tuesday afternoon, the COVID-19 situation had escalated from a minor to a major concern. The European Tour had cancelled the Indian Open, and a wide range of sports had announced intent to operate on a no-audience basis.

By Wednesday, the circumstances had escalated further. The NBA announced the suspension of the season shortly after the Oklahoma City Thunder versus Utah Jazz match was cancelled moments before tip-off with a full stadium audience being told to go home.

Tom Hanks and his wife were confirmed to have contracted the virus in Australia, three of Leicester City’s footballers were in isolation, and it was announced that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus the previous day. Ironically, at a press conference on Monday, Gobert had jokingly made sure to touch all the microphones and recording devices of the reporters facing him as he left, assumingly unaware that he had been infected or would become infected in the near future.

With high-profile positives now, even those who had been flippant about the seriousness of the situation began to sit up and take notice.

Meanwhile, at TPC Sawgrass, thousands of fans were packed together and moving in unison as The Chainsmokers put on a live military-tribute concert at the famous 17th hole. Now, if like me – and I’m probably showing my age here – you previously had never heard of The Chainsmokers, let me save you some time. They are an American DJ duo, and it seems they are at the top of the food chain when it comes to the electronic scene in the United States.

As news of the active steps virtually every other American sporting organisation were taking in the interest of player and public welfare was sweeping social media, the PGA Tour were releasing their own social posts about the incredible scenes as the Chainsmokers “brought the noise” to Sawgrass.

Now, while I sympathise with the difficult decisions the organisation was faced with, the threat of months and months of preparation for their flagship event going down the toilet, surely the organisations social media team should have their fingers a little closer to the pulse. After being strongly condemned for the posts, they were quickly removed from the account, but these wouldn’t be the last social media posts to display incredibly poor judgement from the media team.

But that’s of lesser importance. Yesterday’s play went ahead, with no restrictions on attendance. If you had a ticket, you were in. Yes, the game being an outdoor pursuit does help a little, but with thousands packed closely together, the lack of a roof overhead probably has little bearing.

Add to that the communal indoor areas, the entrances, the refreshment stands, and the countless other sectors where interaction and transference of infection could easily occur, and the holes in the “outdoor aspect” safety net become much wider. And that’s without even mentioning the toilets.

The announcement that the subsequent three days would be behind closed doors was the very least that was expected of the Tour and the later announcement detailing the cancellation of the event along with the following three PGA Tour sanctioned tournaments came as little surprise to anybody who had been closely following the American developments over the previous 72 hours.

But just hours earlier there were tens of thousands on the grounds at TPC Sawgrass so there’s every chance that they’re closing the doors of an empty stable.

Now, I’m no expert in crisis management, but I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on PR, and the PGA Tour’s actions over the last few days have placed them in a no-win situation. Should no positive cases of the coronavirus arise from those directly involved or in attendance, then the whole endeavour will be viewed as reckless, foolhardy, and extremely fortunate.

And bear in mind that’s now a best-case scenario.

I don’t need to spell out the PR disaster that would accompany a spate of positive tests emanating from the fans, players or volunteers on the grounds yesterday in particular.

To blindly pursue profit and agenda at the risk of public health and safety is not just irresponsible, its bordering criminal.

So, the fans are gone from Sawgrass and the players weren’t far behind as the PGA Tour belatedly came to its senses. For all their feet dragging, they reached the right decision in the end, which is a lot more than can be said for one other sporting institution.

The bets may be off at Ponte Vedra but they’re still on elsewhere, notably in the Cotswolds where the Cheltenham Festival continues amid uproar on social media. Viewed in that context, the Tour, while not exactly following best practice, has at least done its patrons some service.

But as usual, money talks.

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