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PGA Tour prepares for cheerless, jeerless golf at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Graeme McDowell kept waiting for the horn to sound. He was sure a stoppage of play was coming as word of more and more sports-world cancellations swept across TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.

“It’s just such a weird, weird unknown quantity,” he said. It’s going to get stranger, too. The PGA Tour will play the remainder of The Players Championship without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. No cheers. No jeers. No raucous environment surrounding the famed 17th hole.

Commissioner Jay Monahan said spectators will not be allowed at the course beginning Friday or at three other tournaments — one in Florida, two in Texas — leading up to the Masters. Even as other sports leagues were canceling tournaments and events for a month or more, Monahan leaned on golf not being a contact sport and being played outdoors across sprawling acreage as a reason not to shut down entirely.

Player reaction varied, but most supported the decision. Some questioned why it took so long for the tour to act. “Half of us could have it right now,” Scottie Scheffler said. “We don’t really know. But that’s out of our control. All you can do is take the right precautions and go from there. We can avoid contact with each other on the golf course and fans, so I don’t see the virus spreading as easily as it would in an NBA game where guys are sweating and touching.

“It’s very physical, a much different sport than we play. They’re in there mixing it up.” The only people allowed on the golf course beginning Friday will be players’ families along with therapists, coaches, trainers and instructors. Each group of golfers will be followed by one scorer, but no standard bearer. Two volunteers will be positioned at each fairway and each green. Concession stands and hospitality tents will be closed.

It will be a much different atmosphere than the opening round, which was played in nearly perfect conditions and with fans scattered around the course and clustered around the featured groups that includes some of golf's biggest stars.

Many of the pro had to deal with distractions. Jhonattan Vegas played the opening round amid concerns for his children. He and his wife have a 7-month-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. They are considering taking a private flight home to Houston.

“At the end of the day, you have to think about people and people’s health, and that’s the priority,” he said. Gary Woodland considered what the pandemic meant for his 67-year-old father, Dan. His dad has heart disease and high blood pressure and made the trip with Woodland and his family to Florida. They were supposed to go to Disney World on Monday but nixed those plans.

“Obviously, this is not something we want to mess around with,” said Woodland, who was among those who questioned what took the tour so long to react and thought they should have played without fans Thursday.

Woodland and one of his playing partners, Bryson DeChambeau, heard about the tour changes while playing the back nine. “We heard fans talking that they wouldn’t be out the rest of the week" Woodland said. “Obviously, they’re upset. ... You want fans out here. You want that energy, but we also don’t want people to get sick, either, and obviously we don’t want to get sick ourselves.”

For most people, coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

“You start seeing the elderly and the people that are really being affected by this, it’s scary,” Woodland said. “We have an older fan base, and that’s scary for having them out here with this coronavirus.”

Fans were allowed to stay on the course after the announcement Thursday. Monahan said the new policy is effective through the Valero Texas Open, the first week in April. That's the final event before the Masters, which is operated by Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National said last week it was monitoring the spread of the virus. The club has a history of not making quick decisions, and no updates were expected until next week at the earliest. Could the Masters really be held without fans? No one would be surprised after the myriad sports cancellations this week.

“That whole golf course is set up for them, and almost every hole seems like a stadium effect,” said Lukas Glover, who publicly questioned the tour's delayed response. “Not having the Sunday back nine roars and all that stuff would be pretty surreal for sure.”

The Players will be surreal, too. The only other times the PGA Tour has kept fans off golf courses were for weather-related safety issues, when high wind toppled trees at Congressional in 2012 and at Torrey Pines in 2016. It recently happened at the Zozo Championship in Japan because of flooding, keeping most fans away when Tiger Woods won his record-tying 82nd tournament.

“It's definitely going to be different and it's not going to be as fun,” Justin Thomas said. “It’s a lot different when you're coming down the stretch trying to win a tournament with (just) your four family members or whoever it might be there.

“But at the end of the day this is a lot bigger picture than that. It’s about a very, very serious sickness and making sure that everybody's OK.”

For more AP golf coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Golf

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