The enormity of the moment still hung in the air following a historic 24 hours for PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan last March, but just moments after the most demanding press conference of his life, he offered a weak smile to a passerby.
“Come on, it’s not that bad,” he said with a sigh.
He didn’t believe that. He couldn’t believe that.
Overnight it felt as if the world had changed and golf’s little slice of harsh reality at TPC Sawgrass was just one of hundreds of dominoes that crushed any sense of normalcy.
The Players Championship had been canceled, the Tour’s schedule suspended indefinitely, as officials in every walk of life braced for what would be the unknown as COVID-19 sent the world into quarantine.
That day at TPC Sawgrass, Monahan tried to remain upbeat. He vowed that his team was already working on what the Tour schedule would look like when golf returned. But deep down, it was difficult, if not impossible, to envision how thoroughly everything would change.
The Tour planned for different contingencies and hoped for the best, but it was impossible to shake a single thought: What if this really was that bad?
On Wednesday at East Lake, five-and-a-half months and 14 events after he announced what felt like the end to the Tour season, the commissioner had time – and more than a few gray hairs – on his side.
“When you commit to a plan, you commit to a plan because you believe in your heart and you believe based on all the quality people that we have around the table and input we’re getting that it’s a plan that can sustain us,” Monahan said. “I was confident that we had the right plan, but I was uncertain as to whether or not, like everybody else, you’d be able to get to this point.”
Yet, here we are, at the Tour Championship, the end to the strangest of seasons. What Monahan tried admirably to mask that day at TPC Sawgrass seems so obvious now. Even when the Tour returned to competition in early June at the Charles Schwab Challenge, there remained a mountain of doubt and second-guessing. Now, with nearly a half-year of hindsight, Monahan will concede as much.
“Our confidence was shaken in those first couple weeks with a few incidents and situations, but we expected that to happen. That’s the nature of what we were dealing with,” he said. “We were reasonably determined to make sure that we were adjusting in the right way so that we could put ourselves in a position to conclude this FedExCup season.”
Monahan is not one for victory laps, but if he were so self-indulgent, this week’s finale at East Lake would be the appropriate place considering that when things kicked off at Colonial, most people talked about just being able to finish a week, never mind a season.
“I’m not going to lie, when I saw pretty much 20% of the tests were positive country-wide, almost worldwide, and with how many other sports were having trouble, I wasn’t certain, especially after Harbour Town,” Jon Rahm said. “I was just keeping in mind, I’m like, nobody should be surprised if one week we show up and there’s 30 positives. I’m shocked that we got seven one week, and I think that was Travelers after Harbour Town, and since then you have very few cases.”
If the Travelers was the consensus low point of the Tour’s return to competition (and it was), the last four weeks have been an unmitigated walk-off. There have been no positive tests on Tour since the Barracuda Championship in early August, and year-to-date testing number on Tour (including players and caddies) has moved to 3,591 with 10 positive results. That includes 139 players and caddies last week at the BMW Championship.
While other sports continue to struggle with protocols and positive tests – or in the case of the NBA, which built an absolute bubble that’s created its own isolation issues – the Tour endured a few bumps in the road. Now, though, it stands as a model, which is saying something in a pandemic.
When and how fans will return to events remains unknown, and on this front the Tour seems to be taking a cautious approach considering aggressive plans by the NFL and some colleges for games this fall. But maybe that’s why on Monahan’s darkest day back in March he was able to see the slightest glint of daylight when everyone else only saw storm clouds.
“You go back to when we were trying to stand the Tour back up and reset the schedule at that point in time we set out a schedule, but we also weren’t sure how long we could sustain that schedule, and we’re still not sure of that going forward,” Monahan said. “The response that we’ve had, of all the uncertainty, what we could do in the communities was one of our biggest concerns, and we’ve done a really good job of that.”