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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Twelve months on I still wonder if Stenson got to finish his painting duties

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Bizarrely for someone who typically spends some 30 weeks a year directly reporting on golf, this week marks 12 months since I’ve spoken in person, face-to-face to any Tour player.

The day was Friday the 13th of March, 2020 and now known as tournament golf’s ‘Black Friday’.

The last player I spoke with was Henrik Stenson and he was behind a shopping trolley following Mrs. Stenson around the Whole Foods store at Ponte Vedra, Florida.

The store is located just a short distance from the front gates of TPC Sawgrass, the annual venue for the PGA Tour flagship Players Championship.

In chatting with Henrik, I asked him what was he now going to do with his time given the Tour had advised there would be a then three week enforced break due to the Coronavirus before the Tour returned to competition.

Of course, standing there chatting in the fruit and veggies aisle with the Open Champion no-one knew that it would be virtually three months to the day before the Tour would eventually return to tee-up on 11th June at Fort Worth in Texas.

“I promised Mrs. Stenson some time ago I would do a bit of painting around the house, so I guess I’ll now do that,” said Henrik smiling.

The Players Championship has always been special to me and for the most bizarre and career-changing reasons.

A week prior to the 1988 The Players, I attended the final round of the Australian PGA Championship on the outskirts of Sydney and in attending the exhibition area, I filled out an entry form and dropped it into the competition entry box.

The next day, I received a telephone call to advise that I had received the first prize of an all-expenses paid return trip for two from Sydney to Jacksonville, Florida to attend The Players.

I had already been covering rounds of the Australasian Tour part-time but my visit, and with hurriedly arranged media accreditation, was the turning point in a near 100-majors reporting career.

But nothing in those 32-years would prepare me for what was about to unfold this second week of March, 2020.

Even prior to arrival on the Monday of championship week there was talk of how professional golf was going to deal with the Coronavirus.

Much of the conversation a week earlier at the Arnold Palmer Invitational had centred on how the players would cope with social distancing and, in particular, dealing with those seeking autographs and ‘selfies’.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan hosted a media conference that Monday, March 9th and scheduled in between Jon Rahm and defending Players champion Rory McIlroy.

After being introduced, Monahan delivered an opening address of 2,026 words and as would be the scenario any year at The Players, spoke to the gathered media as though it was an annual general meeting and, in many ways, it was. He praised those under him and he spoke of new initiatives.

But not once did Monahan mention the words in his opening address that would bring golf to a grinding halt mid-evening four days later – Covid-19 or Coronavirus.

It’s not wrong that he didn’t, but then in the first of 24 questions Monahan faced, he was immediately asked to address what impact the growing Coronavirus concern would have on the Tour schedule going forward.

Monahan indicated the Tour had already formed a task force or a ‘business unit’ as he called it, with the goal to try and fully understand the coronavirus and its implications.

McIlroy had arrived at the temporary media centre conference room with Monahan still talking and when the Commissioner wound-up, McIlroy made his way to the front of the room to face just over 20 questions but not one Coronavirus-related.

It was away from the formal proceedings of the main news conference, and McIlroy relayed his fears to the assembled media, including this journalist.

“It’s obviously very worrying and I think the United States has really been casual about it compared to the rest of the world,” said McIlroy.

“I saw today that ATP events such as Indian Wells have been cancelled in California and especially, they are taking it very seriously and what it means for the world with the major being played there in May, who knows?

“All we can do as professionals is follow the guidelines from the CDC and WHO and it will all get resolved and we can get back to normal.”

The reigning World No. 1 would voice his strong health fears three days later after birdieing his closing three holes in a level par 72.

The first player I spoke to face-to-face that week on fears over the approaching worldwide pandemic was Graeme McDowell, and now looking back 12-months the recently crowned Saudi International champion was also spot on with his concerns.

“This Coronavirus is now very much on everyone’s mind and it is going to affect our job in the next six months in some way shape or form you would imagine,” said McDowell at the time.

“I try now not to fist-pump as much as possible and it’s now ‘elbows’ (smiling) while I have my own Sharpie and I will not use anyone’s pen.

“I’ve also got hand sanitizers in my golf bag and in my locker room, so I am very conscious of how serious this Coronavirus threat can be.”

The world-wide Coronavirus tsunami was growing in intensity and three days prior to the start of The Players, the world of professional golf had already lost 10 events on three different golf tours either cancelled or postponed due to fears of the Coronavirus – the last six events on the MENA (Middle East North Africa) Tour, three events in succession in Cairo on the ALPS Tour and one, the Magic Kenya Open, on the European Tour.

Like all, Open champion Shane Lowry was also concerned given he has a young family but he also was looking for a double victory this second week of March 2020.

Lowry was looking also at securing an unprecedented and very unique Irish sporting victory double as not only was Lowry seeking success at The Players but on Wednesday, 11th March, 2020 but at 4.50pm Irish time (12.50pm US time) ‘Theatre of War’, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Lowry’s Clara Jug syndicate, was lining-up in the Brodies Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. The sixth of seven races at the 2020 Cheltenham Racing Festival.

Finally, despite an ever-growing air of uncertainty, Thursday the 12th of March arrived and play was underway in the 46th anniversary hosting of The Players, with spectators allowed onto the golf course.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama equalled the Stadium Course record with a nine-under par 63, two shots fewer than three players – American Harris English, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and South Korean Kim Si-woo.

Defending champion McIlroy saved embarrassment with a trio of closing birdies in a level par72 but after expressing his health fears on Monday, the Irishman was now fearing the worst should a player or caddy be affected by the virus.

“If anyone becomes infected then we need to shut it down, and everyone needs to get tested,” he said.

A short time earlier, and at 4.03pm (local time) to be precise, a PGA Tour ‘Statement by the Commissioner Jay Monahan’ arrived in my email inbox.

The statement, in part, read: “I’ve spoken to President Trump this morning, and I spoke to Governor Ron DeSantis a few hours ago as well.

“Our team is in constant communication with local health authorities in each market in which our tournaments are played, and we are tracking and monitoring the health information provided by the Centres for Disease Control and World Health Organization in addition to the travel advisories provided by the U.S. State Department.

“With that as pretext, at this point in time, PGA Tour events – across all Tours – will currently proceed as scheduled, but will do so without fans.  This policy starts at The Players Championship tomorrow (Friday) and continues through the Valero Texas Open.”

Monahan added the Corales Puntacana Championship, being held two weeks later, was being postponed.

After filing my final piece for the day, I joined a number of my media colleagues at an on-course bar-b-que arranged for the media.

Not knowing at the time, it now remains the last such gathering I have attended where you could sit around among friends enjoying a meal and a few beers.

I arrived back at my hotel, turned on the Golf Channel and there was no other story – The Players Championship was being cancelled.

Monahan had called a press conference for 9am Friday the 13th of March.

“Good morning, everyone,” said Monahan.

“We’re obviously incredibly disappointed to suspend the PGA Tour’s season for our players and our fans. I’ve said all along, the health and safety of everyone associated with this organization is our number one priority.

“We tried to be as thoughtful and measured as possible during this dynamic and challenging time. We took all the steps within our control and felt comfortable proceeding.

“I’m proud of the team. And I’m a fighter. I wanted to fight for our players and our fans and for this TOUR to show how golf can unify and inspire. But as the situation continued to escalate and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.

“Our goal now is to focus on a plan for the near and long-term and maintain the strength we’ve built through our organization over the past 51 years, and I’m confident we’ll do exactly that.”

Monahan further explained three events were being cancelled up to and including the Valero Texas Open.

He then took questions from the media as players began returning to TPC Sawgrass to clean out their lockers.

Among those was McIlroy and I joined a handful of media in speaking with him on the footsteps of the clubhouse.

“It’s the right decision,” he said.

“I stood up there yesterday after playing and was, like, doing what they did was a step in the right direction. But they were saying they were taking it hour by hour and seeing how it would all play out, and yeah, here we are.”

At around 10am (local time) that same morning on Friday the 13th March, 2020 Augusta National advised the 84th Masters was being postponed.

Initial talk of three PGA Tour events being postponed would lead to losing three months of competition with the Coronavirus also leading to the cancellation of some of the biggest events on the Tour schedule, none bigger than the 149th Open Championship.

So, here we are one year on and not much has changed other than the sobering thought some 2.6 million persons around the globe have now died from the virus with a staggering 524,000 of those in the US.

As well, 12 months on, I have yet to return to either a European or PGA Tour event and will not do so until we return to some normality away from having to comply with remaining within a tournament bubble.

I would normally attend upwards of 25 to 30 tournaments a year and often struggled to recall specifically just how many but I will never forget two memorable dates in the 2020 schedule – the 12th of March and the 11th of June (also my dear mum’s birthday).

In conclusion, I’ve yet to get the chance to ask Henrik Stenson in person or for that matter on ‘Zoom’, whether or not he got around to completing his painting duties on the family’s Lake Nona house.

Oh, ‘Theatre of War’ finished a gallant seventh at Cheltenham and Lowry is still the reigning Open Champion.

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