Golf with fans? Organizers from the Memorial and others are pressing for it
The Memorial Tournament and three other professional golf events in Ohio have gone on the offensive by requesting that Gov. Mike DeWine lift or ease a ban on large gatherings and allow fans to attend their summer tournaments.
A letter addressed to DeWine and co-signed by the tournament directors of the Memorial, Marathon Classic in Toledo, Bridgestone Senior PGA Challenge in Akron and Nationwide Children’s Championship reads: “We appeal to you to permit the four Ohio professional tournaments to allow fans this coming July and August.”
DeWine’s order limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people was put in place March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The letter, dated May 15, includes proposals on how the tournaments will implement safety measures to protect spectators, including social distancing, issuing protective equipment (masks, sanitizers, gloves and screening) and temperature screening outside tournament grounds.
The tournament directors insist that “without fans these tournaments will not be successful or viable.”
Memorial Tournament director Dan Sullivan chose not to release details specific to his event, including whether fans at Muirfield Village Golf Club would be required to wear masks.
“We are working on a plan and details to follow,” Sullivan said. But he confirmed that the Memorial will go forward July 16-19 with or without fans.
The same cannot be said of the LPGA’s Marathon Classic, held July 23-26 in Sylvania.
“If the question is, ‘Could you play the tournament without spectators?’ we couldn’t,” Marathon tournament director Judd Silverman said. “When you run the numbers, if (there are) no spectators, then you’re returning all of the sponsorship money … and once you return all that money, it puts our event deep into the red to the point we can’t afford to do that.”
Silverman stressed the community bonding aspect of fans being able to attend tournaments, and the letter attempts to drive that point home.
“We also wish to communicate that while each of our events has a different business model, we all rely on sponsors and fans as critical elements to our success,” the letter reads. “The positive impact the tournaments deliver to the State, our host communities and the many charities which benefit is a direct result of the support we receive from hosting sponsors and fans at our events.”
But in-person attendance goes beyond altruistic giving; it also is about getting sports back to normal, which includes fans attending events that give off energy.
Professional golf returned to live broadcast on Sunday with the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity skins event that featured Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff at Seminole Golf Club in Florida.
One might list golf among the few sports in which not having fans on-site makes little difference, with the game’s polite applause and only occasional crowd roars. But the made-for-TV skins game revealed that even golf needs its galleries. Watching the four players stroll Seminole in shorts while carrying their own golf bags, and with barely any banter to increase interest, turned the event into somewhat of a sterile snoozer. (There was, however, more than $5 million raised for COVID-19 relief.)
Golf followers are about to find out how an actual PGA Tour event held without fans looks and sounds or does not sound when the Charles Schwab Challenge tees off June 11 in Forth Worth, Texas. How will the watching experience register without galleries?
The Ohio tournament directors hope they don’t have to find out for themselves.
Silverman said the four events hope to hear back from DeWine’s office in the next two weeks, but the governor’s office did not confirm a timetable.
“We did get a letter. It’s something our teams have been working on,” DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said. “Our large venue group and tourism group are well into work on it. I can’t say how soon we will have an announcement.”
The letter urges DeWine to consider the distinctive nature of golf tournaments: “We are hopeful you recognize the unique attributes professional golf tournaments offer relative to hosting fans in an expansive outdoor environment.”
The Bridgestone Senior Players Championship (Aug. 13-16) and Korn Ferry Tour’s Nationwide Children’s Championship, played Aug. 20-23 at the Ohio State Scarlet Course, have more time to work with. But the Memorial needs to know about fan admittance by June 1 and the Sylvania tournament by June 20, Silverman said.
“We’re all committed to move forward with the governor and have reduced numbers of attendees relative to a traditional year,” he said.
Just so that number is not zero.