The strangest day I’ver ever had covering golf — by a long shot

Fans turned out in droves at TPC Sawgrass for the first (and only) round of The Players Championship.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL. – Commissioner Jay Monahan gave his annual state of the PGA Tour announcement earlier this week, noting with pride that the circuit has events in Asia, Canada, Bermuda and the Dominican Republic and three allied international tours in Canada, China and Latin America. He added that over 200,000 fans were expected and 900 media were credentialed for The Players Championship, which teed off on Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.

The questioning after Monahan made his pre-tournament remarks, though, focused on something else – the coronavirus pandemic.

“A very dynamic situation,’’ Monahan conceded. Just how dynamic became very clear on Thursday morning, four hours after the first players had teed off in the most lucrative tournament of the season. The Players has a $15 million purse.

Then, about 12 hours after that, the PGA Tour issued a statement saying that The Players, as well as the tournaments of the next three weeks, wouldn’t be played. In 51 years reported on golf I’ve covered some wild scenarios – but never anything like this.

Monahan first announced that the final three rounds of the tournament would be played without fans as would the next three tournaments – next week’s Valspar Championship in the Tampa area; the World Golf Championship’s Dell Technologies Match Play Championship March 25-29 in Austin, TX.; and the Valero Texas Open April 2-5. The Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship, to be played opposite the Match Play event, was also postponed.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama acknowledged the crowd after his record round, then — a few hours later — the cheering stopped.

The cancellation statement of Thursday night came without comment from Monahan, who was to speak with the media about the latest abrupt change of plans on Friday morning.

Big prize money was on the line in those as well — $6.9 million in the Valspar, $3 million in the Dominican Republic stop and $7.7 million in the Valero Texas Open. Those events lead into the Masters, the first major championship of 2020. It’s scheduled for April 9-12 in Augusta, Ga., and could go on without fans as well. Masters officials have been in talks with Monahan.

“I’ll leave it to Augusta to share their thinking when they’re prepare to share their thinking,’’ said Monahan. “But they have been a great partner, a great help to us as we have been thinking through this over the last several weeks.’’

The decision to go without fans was not taken lightly. It came after the National Basketball Association suspended its season and the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. announced that fans would not be permitted in its postseason tournaments.

Monahan had talks with President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the hours leading up to Thursday’s announcement.

“Both the White House and the Governor’s office have been and are supportive of the precautionary measures we have taken,’’ said Monahan. “This is an incredibly fluid and dynamic situation. We have been and are committed to being responsible, thoughtful and transparent with our decision process.’’

The setting at TPC Sawgrass during the first round was a most pleasant one, then reality set in.

With 93 players from 28 countries, the PGA Tour is more global than most other sports but Monahan didn’t opt to cancel the events entirely.

“If you look at our venues, obviously we’re an outdoor sport,’’ he said. “We’re not in a stadium and this week players are making their way over 400 acres. We’ve got 144 players here and over the course of a round they generally socially distance themselves. We felt, by taking this step to address the problem with our fans, we’re in a position where we can continue to operate the events as of right now.’’

The situation, though, remained a fluid one. On Wednesday night the Players tournament staff, learning that three more coronavirus victims were reported in the North Florida area, issued a statement that fans who planned to attend the tournament could request a ticket refund or exchange. In an effort to reduce interaction the players were also told not to sign autographs.

“We’re relying heavily, as other leagues and sports and entertainment venues are, on the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control,’’ Monahan said in his meeting with the media, “but primarily, given the fact that we’re playing 175 tournaments over six tours, this really is about a market-to-market exercise.’’

Already there’s been reports that the second major tournament — PGA Championship, scheduled to be played in May at Harding Park in San Francisco — would be moved to TPC Sawgrass if the coronavirus pandemic required it.

Monahan downplayed that report but admitted “when you get in these extraordinary circumstances you have to make yourself available to your partners. You have to work as closely together as you ever have to help each other get through this.’’