After one round, The Players falls victim to the coronavirus

© Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. – “Those are the last fans you’ll see this tournament,” or words to that effect, Dan Hicks told viewers on the Golf Channel. “And there aren’t that many.”

It was Thursday at The Players, golf’s presumptive fifth major, the first round. And the only round.

On Thursday evening, in what both was a surprise and a necessity, The PGA Tour cancelled The Players, its most important event, along with subsequent tournaments.

Reality had trumped expectation. There wasn’t going to be an exception. Golf, even at the highest level, was unable to compete with the threat and fear of the coronavirus.

“We’re talking about a major problem,” said Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, “and next to that, sports is nothing.”

Sports had become nothing.

Basketball, baseball and hockey already were finished, disposed of. The lone survivor was golf — albeit, starting with Friday’s second round, to be played without fans.

Then, fans or no fans, the tournament was ended. Boom. Gone.

The coronavirus. We’re advised it isn’t that serious for the healthy, wary and young. It’s serious enough, however, to create chaos, to disrupt, to alter what in sports we thought was unalterable.

The NCAA basketball tournament cancelled, the Indian Wells tennis event eliminated, the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association seasons suspended, the major league baseball season delayed. Two months ago, no one would have thought these were possible. Then they became necessary.

Every announcement from a sporting organization seems to begin, “The health and safety of our fans and employees...”

We know what’s coming. It’s about what won’t be coming, the games, the tournaments, the telecasts.

This is life, people, something that despite our advances in technology and our discoveries in medicine reminds us there is much beyond our control.

Maybe it’s not quite the Black Plague, which ravaged Europe in the 1300s. We now understand the cause. We still are unable to prevent the spread of the disease.

The worry was about holding NBA games without spectators. It would be surrealistic, was the universal observation. Then one of the players on the Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert, was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Now the games aren’t being played at all.

Desperate times, we’ve been told, call for desperate measures. When thousands of people are stricken, when the stock market craters, when restaurants and planes and commuter trains are half empty, the times are desperate.

Wiping out the NCAA’s premier event, taking away an opportunity from young women and men that never may occur again, is unfortunate. Some would say unfair, after all the work and stress a player — or a coach — went through to reach the tournament.

To borrow a golf offering, that’s the rub of the green, that’s being in the wrong place at the right time. In his prime, baseball great Ted Williams was a fighter pilot in two wars; Willie Mays spent two years in the Army.

This time, the battle is against a highly infectious disease. The people who administer sports, properly, are not going to chance losing that battle. If some 19-year-old forward will miss the playing in the tournament, well, he’s just another soldier in the battle.

The situation was remarkably fluid. One minute it was business almost as usual for the NBA, the games going on although without spectators, then the next minute — or maybe seconds after the disclosure that Gobert was stricken — the games were off.

We’re almost immune to the changes. Only five days ago, the big tennis event, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, was cancelled, and there was disbelief, in some quarters even outrage. When Thursday night the NCAA made the call, we knew it was coming.

Golf, certainly, is different from the other sports, played outside over several hundred acres. So on Thursday, The Players went on full bore. But obviously, not everyone was comfortable with the arrangement.

If Cactus League and Grapefruit League exhibition baseball games couldn’t be held in the ballparks, why is a golf tournament being played with spectators? Bad optics. Good reaction.

PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan and the Tour board changed policy. Starting with Friday’s second round and tentatively extending through the next three tournaments, the events would be held without fans.

We never got that far. You only hope eventually we get by the virus.

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