Fan attendance at sporting events. Boy, what in the wide world of sports do we do with that topic? With so many variables in play like testing attendees, distancing, concessions, ventilation, vaccinations now playing a part... I don’t envy any regulatory agency or law-making body right now. No one wants to be responsible for spreading a virus, but everyone wants to make money. That right there is a conundrum.
The PGA Tour resumed play late last summer with two big new policy changes with a nod to the global pandemic: (1) players/caddies are tested daily and must withdraw and quarantine upon a positive result; and (2) tournaments would be contested with no fans and only limited staff/support personnel. Otherwise, the tournament is fairly normal. The players don’t shake hands (lots of fist bumps), you can see at least some social distancing, and media and staff are wearing masks. Even pre- and post-round interviews are conducted like Cole Cubelic chasing down Cousin Eddie Mullen before he gets to the locker room after yet another loss. So far, this has worked well. The testing has identified probably around 25 players or caddies who were positive, and one would think that has prevented unwanted spread.
Now, tournaments are applying pressure to the Tour to relax the restrictions and allow for both ticket sales and limited concessions - big sources of revenue that help the organizers pay the huge bills that come from hosting a PGA Tour event. There have been a handful of tournaments that have done this - the Houston Open comes to mind. And this week, supposedly 5,000 fans will be allowed each day on the TPC Scottsdale grounds.
Is 5,000 a lot? Considering the huge acreage of the course, I would say no. Considering this particular tournament usually has 12,000-15,000 fans in standing-room-only proximity around the Par 3 16th hole alone, this doesn’t scratch the surface. Most tourneys will have between 100,000-130,000 over the course of 7 days (Monday practice rounds through Sunday final round). The WMPO has greeted over 100,000 fans on a single day multiple times. Call it the desert air, call it the convenient recycling bins everywhere, call it the outlet for nearby Arizona State students with disposable income, or just call it the biggest beer bash in golf.
So while many folks have complained that the Ryder Cup can’t be competed without fans, that they are integral to the event; that the Masters without roars through the pines becomes less than the Masters; that PGA fans will conduct themselves appropriate and follow all guidelines for safety and decorum... yeah right. Crack back 8 Michelob Ultras and it’s fascinating how one’s neurons fire in an unexpected direction.
With all that said, this is a baby step towards “normalcy” in golf, whatever that is. The players will play, the caddies will caddie, and the scores will still count. And this time, we’ll see a little more interaction from outside the ropes. Here’s the details on what we have to watch...
Tournament: Waste Management Phoenix Open (WMPO), February 4-7, 2021
Course: TPC Scottsdale (Stadium), 7,261 yards, par 71. Just on the outskirts of Scottsdale, AZ.
Purse: $7,300,000 total, $1,314,000 to the winner
Defending Champ: Webb Simpson. The Broughton HS and Raleigh native, via Wake Forest (he did not grad transfer to UGA and then opt out) caught fire in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, then made key birdies on the final holes to get into a playoff with Tony Finau. If you know Tony Finau, you know Webb Simpson would ultimately prevail. Especially as he birdied the first playoff hole for his 7th Tour title.
Fun Fact: Phil Mickelson, 3 time winner of this event, alum of nearby ASU, crowd favorite, and sometimes moral compass, is skipping the event. He who once said “this is the tournament I wanted to win the most” and who draws the biggest crowds, is instead across the Prime Meridian and playing in the “Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers” in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. Why? He’s likely receiving well north of $1 million just to show up. Seriously.
TV Times: Since CBS will be broadcasting a certain football game of some renown, the PGA Tour TV contract stipulates that NBC gets to take over the cameras. Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (Golf Channel). Thursday-Friday, 3 p.m.-7 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1 p.m.-3 p.m. ET (Golf Channel), 3 p.m.-6 p.m. ET (NBC).
‘Dawgs in the Field: 9. Brendon Todd, Bubba Watson, Brian Harman, Chris Kirk, Harris English, Hudson Swafford, Keith Mitchell, Russell Henley, Sepp Straka.
So there’s who to root for, 9 out of the 156 man field. Yeah, there’s a football game Sunday night but the tournament will manipulate tee times to do everything possible for these guys to finish before. Enjoy the golf, and as always...