When I first got a taste of Golf sans fans – in 2019 at Zozo in Japan

V Krishnaswamy

Long before Covid-19 entered our mind space, I got a taste of “Golf without Fans”. Yes, there was Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy. Justin Thomas. Bubba Watson. And so on.

It was the first-ever PGA event in Japan, the Zozo Championships in October last year. And, it had Woods in the field. The first day, as also a Skins Game in the rain before that, attracted over 17,000 people to the Narashino Country Club. Friday was washed out by Typhoon Bualoi. Saturday saw the second round, but with NO fans. The media, this writer included, had a near private viewing of the world’s best.

Many of us couldn’t believe our luck. Never had we seen the world’s best ‘competing’ (as opposed to practice rounds) of such a big event, without being jostled by crowds and making our way past a sea of elbows and massive hats, especially on the PGA Tour event.

The crowds kept out were not happy, but in hindsight it was the right decision because the grounds were slippery and dangerous for crowds close to 20,000.

It was a surreal experience for me, though a couple of veterans in the media tent recalled a ‘No fans’ day at the AT&T National at the Congressional in 2012.

The organisers lost a lot of revenue in terms of ticket sales on the Saturday (which saw the second round), but more than 20,000 turned up on Sunday and Woods won on a Monday.

It was only a day in 2012. And, only a day in 2020. But it could now be much longer. The PGA had announced ‘No fans’ after the first round of this year’s PLAYERS, but ultimately had to cancel what was the most lucrative golf tournament ever with a $15m purse. The PGA, however, was generous in distributing half that money to all those who teed up.

Then, the fans had stood by the decisions and supported the organisers and the Tour. As, I am sure, they will now.

 

Little did I or for that matter any one associated with the golf world imagine that this could be a ‘new normal’ sometime in the future as Covid-19 holds the world to ransom.

The PGA is hoping to open up the Tour in June with first four events – Charles Schwab Challenge at the Colonial, the RBC Heritage, the Travelers Championships and Rocket Mortgage Classic – without fans. The Tour will monitor the situation at all times and take stock of things.

Yet, even as Covid-19 stays on as an uninvited and unwanted guest, there is already talk of many other events going the similar route. Including the Ryder Cup.

The players, while relishing and being grateful for the playing opportunities, are also pondering how it would be sink a monster putt and hear no claps. You could even ace a hole and have no one, save the caddie (at a distance); a playing partner (also, at a distance); a referee (again, at a distance) being the only spectators to a golfer’s dream moment, that would normally be followed by a round of high-fives, chest-bumps, massive cheers from the fans; and by endless rounds of beer at the bar in the evening!

The fans would be watching, too. But on the telly, which is probably the reason the Tours want the game to re-start. The fans want it, too.

Now, what exactly does “Not open for fans” mean?

It means no ticketed entry. No luxury marquees. No Grandstands. No hospitality tents – all of which mean dollars, which keep the sport going. No on-site fun events, either. Its all about social distancing, its all about safety. Rightly so. But the game takes a massive hit, as has everything else in our lives.

“No fans”, however does not mean no infrastructure. There will be ropes along the fairways; there will be volunteers (PGA Tour events typically have about 500-600 odd volunteers, and often more), scoreboard operators, TV teams of camerapersons, commentators, tech services guys for ShotLink and so on.

Now it also means masks, more doctors than ever before for duty like taking temperatures, assessing cold/cough conditions, testing kits, ambulance services (which always are present, but they must now be Covid-ready).

It does seem players / officials/ volunteers will be tested before they travel to the event and will even be tested at the event. Frankly, how will that happen, we don’t know for there don’t seem to be enough testing kits anywhere in the world, let alone for golf events?

While preparations cost a lot and ticket sales get revenues, a back-of-the-ticket calculation would show that the truth is that it is the Media rights (TV in particular); the corporate hospitality sales and thee Pro-Ams are what bring in 75-80 per cent of the revenues.

So, no wonder many organisers and promoters would even feel that not having an event might cost less than having one.

Yet, many will go ahead, if only to show their commitment to the game and for their corporate pride and for whatever jobs they may offer when an event is staged.

 

Golf in Europe, Asia and India

 

Which brings us to golf in lesser lucrative markets including Europe. The European Tour is talking about cuts in purses and it is also known that many sponsors are not keen on having events in current conditions, for they could even harm their image as the world suffers. So, many have pulled out or are likely to pull out.

The same holds for thee Asian Tour, but crowds in Asia have always been much lesser than in the United States or even Europe. In India, it is miniscule.

While the PGA is slated to re-start in June, Europe is unsure till at least July and the Asian Tour is likely to start even later, but the Asian Tour has always had a break of sorts in summer months.

As for the domestic Tours like India, which at one point, was doing well, it is a big setback.

Coming to the golfers themselves, the big guns on the PGA are well off, but the journeymen on all Tours are literally having to tighten their belt. Pros at the bottom rung barely break even, but now without ‘no work’ it is agony.

 

In the past and more recently, we have had ‘Made-for-TV’ golf events, but those were fun events, celebrity and exhibition events but not proper professional Tour events or even Majors or the Ryder Cup.

The world is indeed changing.

Yet, the golf fraternity is happier having the sport back even without fans, than not having the sport at all.

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