What crowds at PGA Tour golf events might look like in 2021 as COVID-19 pandemic continues into the new year

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At some point in 2021, presumably, the Ryder Cup will be played. The Olympics will be played. All four of golf’s major championships will be played. You could have said the same thing this time last year, but it certainly would not have been as meaningful or impactful of a declaration as it is in December 2020.

And if those events all take place — most specifically the Ryder Cup — then it stands to reason that fans will be back at some point along the way as well. But … when? 

Well, a partial answer to that question is that they are already back. The 2020 Houston Open in November featured limited fans, and the Bermuda Championship at the end of October did as well. The first PGA Tour event of 2021, the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, has said that “limited tickets will be available for on-site guests.” Interestingly, the tournament will not allow fans to follow players, but will apparently congregate them in one space near the 18th hole. Meanwhile, the Farmers Insurance Open at the end of January 2021, tantamount to the PGA Tour’s opening day, will not include fans at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. 

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So what will emerge over the next few months seems to be a fractured system that is state-dependent until some ambiguous future date. Presumably, other California events in January and February will also not have fans, but it sounds like the Phoenix Open in February will.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who is hopeful for a safe reintroduction of fans by the Florida swing in March, said a COVID-19 vaccine will not be a requirement for anyone at PGA Tour events.

“I think vaccination is a choice, and I would apply the same logic and the same amount of care to that subject as we have to every other subject, and that is to try and do our best to educate our members on vaccination and the pros and cons associated with it,” Monahan said last week. “But ultimately it’s an individual decision.”

It seems safe to say, based on all the information we have at this time, that golf tournaments in the first quarter of 2021 leading into the 2021 Masters will have extremely limited attendance — if they have crowds at all. Then it gets more interesting. According to most experts, the COVID-19 vaccine should be available on a wider scale in the second quarter of 2021, which is also when golf’s major championships begin.

Nobody is under the illusion that this means everything will go back to normal immediately, but it might mean that the Masters is a quarter full or the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May is half full. Maybe the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June is at 75% capacity just a few months after that Farmers Insurance Open at the same venue was empty in January. It also might not mean that, but it’s at least on the table in a way it was not six months ago.

The one that fascinates me the most is the Ryder Cup, slated to be played from Sept. 24-26 in Wisconsin. Where will the United States be at as a country with the virus by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around, and will we all be comfortable enough that this event is fully packed like normal? That’s difficult to imagine right now, but so was a cancellation of the 2020 Open Championship this time 12 months ago.

All of this matters not only for the fans but the players as well. Many of golf’s stars felt a bit lost at the end of 2020 with no juice at events and nobody there to carry the day. Even a modicum of return to normal could greatly benefit the Jon Rahms and Rory McIlroys of the world.

Regardless, it has become clear that everyone wants fans back. If that wasn’t true before the Masters (and it probably was), those last two days of Dustin Johnson’s romp were the best evidence we got all year of how much was missed without anyone on the grounds at these events. While the first two days proceeded mostly like normal, the last two lacked juice and a coronation for one of the best of his generation fell flatter than it should have.

While D.J. was touching off a final-round 68 for the win, I strolled the 15th fairway with the handful of other folks in attendance for the last big event of a very strange year. Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley walked the ropes, ostensibly taking in the event he presides over annually. He was approached by someone — likely a member of the club — who lamented the lack of patrons and voiced his hopes for what an April 2021 Masters might look like with thousands of people back on the grounds.  Ridley, who has likely heard some version of that 10,000 times over the last 10 months agreed vigorously with the man. 

“We all want that to happen,” he said. “We’re hopeful that it will.”


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