Rory McIlroy recalls 2020 Players Championship ahead of unlikely title defence

Phil Casey, PA Golf Correspondent
·5-min read

In the build-up to last year’s Players Championship, defending champion Rory McIlroy was taken aback by some of the precautions being taken due to the developing coronavirus pandemic.

“At the start of the week you had people sort of fist bumping or elbowing and I’m sort of thinking, what are these people doing, like this is stupid,” McIlroy recalled this week.

“And then five days later the world shuts down.”

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While other sports in the United States were being suspended or cancelled in response to the outbreak, commissioner Jay Monahan defended the decision to let the PGA Tour’s flagship event to go ahead.

“If you look at our venues, obviously we are an outdoor sport and here at TPC Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres,” Monahan said around noon during Thursday’s first round 12 months ago.

“Over the course of a round our players do socially distance themselves, so we felt like by taking the step to address the problem with our fans, we’re in a position where we can continue to operate the events, as of right now.”

Addressing the problem with our fans initially meant playing the final three rounds without any on site, but the situation continued to evolve rapidly.

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As more sports were cancelled and Broadway suspended theatre performances in New York, the PGA Tour released a statement at 6.45pm local time confirming its plans to continue the tournament and detailing who would be allowed at Sawgrass.

Less than two hours later, news that two Florida theme parks, Disney World and the Universal Orlando Resort, had closed, proved to be the final straw.

“To me that really was the final thing we heard that said; ‘even though we feel we have a safe environment and we’ve done all the right things, we can’t proceed’,” Monahan said at the time.

Not everyone felt the PGA Tour had done all the right things, although Taiwan’s CT Pan was the only player to withdraw before play got under way, writing on Twitter: “Our lifestyle is like a circus, traveling from one place to another. We believe this is a time to exercise caution by not playing this week.”

CT Pan
C.T. Pan, of Taiwan, blasts from the sand trap on the 16th hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational (John Raoux/AP)

Pan also deleted an earlier tweet which appeared to criticise the lack of facilities for players at Sawgrass.

“I’m probably the only one who is not playing, same number as the hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining,” he wrote.

With the tournament cancelled and the first round scores expunged from the record books – including McIlroy’s 72 and Hideki Matsuyama’s course record-equalling 63 – McIlroy returns to Sawgrass as the defending champion for a second time following his victory in 2019.

“It’s amazing, and to think that we’re a year into it and we’re still having to do certain things,” the four-time major winner said.

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“I mean, obviously back in the UK the vaccine rollout is going incredibly well, which is great to see, and that bodes well for hopefully sporting events and golf tournaments being staged there in the summer.

“But yeah, it’s surreal. I was saying to someone yesterday, it’s felt like an incredibly slow 12 months, but at the same time it’s gone really fast. I can’t believe we’re back here already.

“But happy that we are back and happy that we get to play.”

Former Masters champion Danny Willett will not get to play after withdrawing following a positive test for Covid-19, but life on the PGA Tour continues to edge closer to “normality”, with the tournament operating at 20 per cent capacity of spectators and players sharing accommodation.

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“Thinking about this event last year, I’m staying in the same house,” world number three Justin Thomas said. “We have a friend that lives here, and myself, Rickie (Fowler) and Jordan (Spieth) all stay in the same house.

“When I got in Sunday, I was going upstairs and it was almost a little emotional because the last time I was up there, and Rickie and I were sitting on this couch with his wife and we’re trying to figure out, what are we going to do, what’s going to happen, what’s going on; I’ve never seen anything like this.

“It definitely brought back some very odd, bizarre memories, but it’s crazy to think it’s been a year, it’s crazy to think we’re still in it.

“But I’m just proud that the Tour has done such a great job that we’re now able to have 10,000 fans or whatever it is this week, so it should be fun.”