The Players Championship in early March became golf’s first high profile victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the PGA Tour cancelling the tournament after the opening round. For the four turf managers who were there as part of the ASTMA and John Deere sponsored TPC Volunteer Program, it was an experience they won’t likely forget.
It happened fast – real fast. Midway through the opening round of The Players Championship (TPC) at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan called a press conference in response to the growing situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The previous evening, while at the pre-tournament reception, the NBA made global headlines when it announced it would be pausing its 2019/2020 season after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. While other US sporting competitions followed in the NBA’s footsteps, at that midday press conference on Thursday Monaghan reaffirmed the Tour’s commitment to keep playing the event, albeit that fans would not be allowed to spectate for the remaining three rounds. By 9.30 that evening, however, the tournament was officially off.
At his Friday morning press conference, Monaghan talked about the rapidly changing nature of events and the decision to cancel: “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 organisation 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.”
The Players Championship is steeped in history and has been a marquee fixture on the PGA Tour since the mid-1970s when Jack Nicklaus collected the inaugural title at Atlanta Country Club. The tournament moved to north east Florida in 1982, the Stadium Course specifically designed by course architect Pete Dye with the purpose of challenging the Tour’s best. Sadly, in the lead-up to this year’s event, Dye passed away at the age of 94.
In the years since arriving at Sawgrass, the tournament has grown in stature to become the Tour’s biggest event, boasting a $15 million prize purse. It attracts one of the strongest fields in golf and with a fan-friendly course, boasting its famed 17th island green, it has come to be regarded as golf’s unofficial ‘fifth Major’. Millions of dollars in charitable donations are made to the local community and organisations as a result of the tournament, while for the golf course management profession it brings together volunteers from across the world eager to experience tournament preparations at the elite level.
For the 2020 event, a total of 90 volunteers had arrived at TPC Sawgrass the weekend before the tournament, complementing the already 110-strong crew overseen by director of golf course operations Jeff Plotts, his assistant Lucas Andrews and superintendents Kyle Elliott (Stadium Course) and Shannon Wheeler (Valley Course). Among them this year were three Australian superintendents and a Kiwi counterpart who were chosen as part of the inaugural TPC Volunteer Program run by the Australian Sports Turf Managers Association in conjunction with Silver Partner John Deere.
Luke Helm (Meadowbrook GC, Qld), Tim Hoskinson (CSTM, Cairns Golf Club, Qld), Tony Gordon (The National GC, Vic) and George Flynn (Pukekohe GC, NZ) went through a rigorous application process before being selected last November for the programme, arriving at TPC Sawgrass on 6 March, the Friday before the tournament teed off.
Assisting with course preparations up until the first round, unfortunately they too became victims of the pandemic and the tournament’s eventual cancellation. Within 24 hours of finishing their set-up tasks ahead of Thursday’s opening round, through the swift coordination of John Deere they found themselves on a plane back home. Once back in Australia and New Zealand, they were forced to go into self-isolation for 14 days as both countries had started imposing restrictions on returning travellers.
“It was kind of surreal as it all happened so quickly,” reflects Hoskinson, superintendent at Cairns GC since 2017. “Just before I left our irrigation technician Karl asked me whether I had any concerns about COVID-19. It was early March and at that time I didn’t. However, just seven days into the trip places were shutting down, corporate travel was being suspended and countries were going into lockdown.
“Within that 12-hour period on the Thursday, it went from being a possibility of no spectators for the weekend, to a complete ban on spectating and staff being told even they weren’t allowed to spectate, to the whole event being cancelled! It was devastating for everyone when we heard the news. As volunteers we were gutted, but you really felt for the crew at TPC Sawgrass as they had been working their tails off for months leading into the event. I really take my hat off to John Deere - who looked after us and got everything sorted so that we could come home to our families quickly and safely.”
CLICK HERE to read the full article, orginally published in Volume 22.3 of the ATM. Words by Brett Robinson. Images by: Tony Hoskinson, Tony Gordon, Luke Helm and George Flynn.