By Chris Cox, PGA TOUR
Jay Monahan never saw the opening action of the 2020 PLAYERS Championship, where Hideki Matsuyama raced out to an opening two-shot lead with a stunning 9-under 63. Instead, the PGA TOUR Commissioner spent the first round of his organization’s flagship tournament holed up inside a boardroom at TPC Sawgrass, wondering what the future held in store not just for golf, but the world itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic had finally breached the shores of the United States, and in just a few short hours, life would change as Monahan knew it. THE PLAYERS Championship would soon be over, as would the next three months’ worth of events on the PGA TOUR schedule.
“As gut wrenching as it was at the time for the TOUR, our players, our fans and our community, it goes without saying that what we experienced that day would pale in comparison to what our world would experience in the coming days, weeks and months,” Monahan said. “That Friday morning, I had several parting thoughts, one of them being that, even though we had no clue what was to come, we would take what we were experiencing and turn it into a positive, something I feel our game does better than any other.”
Exactly 362 days later, Monahan’s vision seems prophetic.
The PGA TOUR Commissioner has no plans to spend this Thursday’s opening-round action at TPC Sawgrass inside a stuffy boardroom. Instead, he’ll be down on the Stadium Course, soaking in every last moment THE PLAYERS Championship has to offer.
As Monahan well knows now, these days are no longer to be taken for granted.
“I’ve always been there every single year for the first tee shot since I moved down here to serve as Executive Director of THE PLAYERS,” Monahan said. “Last year, for obvious reasons … was the one time I wasn't there for it. I will be there on Thursday. I look forward to it. Just proud, most importantly, to be back here a year later, proud of our players, proud of all the caddies, everybody that has worked so hard to get us back to this point in time, and, candidly, to do so in a really inspiring way.
“I think this is an important week for us every single year, but particularly so this year.”
It seemed to be business as usual Tuesday as Monahan spoke at the podium, part of his annual State of the Tour address ahead of THE PLAYERS Championship. But as anyone who has followed the sport over the last 12 months understands, the circumstances around this year’s event are anything but normal.
“It's just nice to be back,” said reigning champion Rory McIlroy, who hoisted the last PLAYERS trophy in 2019. “It's been a year since the world changed, and I think everyone here in terms of the players that are playing are just grateful that we're back doing what we want to do, which is playing golf and trying to win tournaments.”
Signs are everyone showing just how different this edition of THE PLAYERS is from season’s past, as reminders of the ‘new normal’—social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing—are dotted throughout the course. And instead of a packed facility this week, TPC Sawgrass will admit just 20 percent of its maximum capacity, tickets for which sold out for all four competition days in a matter of hours.
“Having fans and having the energy is something that I've missed so much. I think it changes the golf tournament so much,” Justin Thomas said. “The pressure, the nerves, everything that goes into it, it just really makes it different. It makes it better, I think. It gives the tournament the atmosphere, the buzz, the adrenaline. It's just everything about it is so fun.”
Such rabid interest is an encouraging sign for the popularity of the PGA TOUR and THE PLAYERS Championship, to be sure. But it’s also a sign of the burgeoning growing popularity golf discovered during the pandemic, as new and old fans alike took to their local courses in droves last year.
“I've said it a couple times, but as we sit here today, more people have made golf their thing,” Monahan said. “Whether you're playing nine, whether you're playing 18, whether you're chipping, whether you're putting, whether you're playing PGA TOUR 2K21, the game itself has served an important role. It's been a respite. It's helped people with their mental health and well-being, their physical health.
“I think that when I look at what we've been able to do, to play 36 (PGA TOUR) events, to showcase the natural beauty of our sport, to inspire so many fans, I think in a lot of respects that has led directly to the renaissance that our game is undergoing.”
Of course, there are still daily reminders that the world is not yet back to where it was.
Just hours before Monahan took to the stage, the TOUR announced the cancellation of the RBC Canadian Open for the second consecutive year due to ongoing logistical challenges related to the pandemic. And it remains to be seen whether international travel will permit the playing of the much-anticipated three-week Asia Swing later this fall.
“We're hopeful. Obviously we've got events overseas with the Open Championship, you've got the Olympic Games, and we're hopeful that, by the time we're able to play in Asia, that we'll be in a position to do so,” Monahan said. “But as we've demonstrated every step of the way, we're going to spend a lot of time making certain that we have contingencies in place.
“I think what ZOZO and C.J. did last year by hosting their events in the United States and staying on our schedule was remarkable. (As for) Canada, it's really tough news to know that we're not playing their national open two years in a row. We're going to find a solution there.
But despite all that, as Monahan sits here now, just mere hours until THE PLAYERS Championship makes its long-awaited return, he can’t help but smile.
Things certainly appeared bleak this time a year ago. And yet, 48 of the world’s top 50 players are all right back in Jacksonville again this week, each hoping to raise one of the premier trophies the sport has to offer.