How Golf Won

The inside story of how the PGA Tour salvaged its season amid a raging pandemic


On Thursday morning March 12, blue skies shone without a breath of wind at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach. All businesses and schools throughout surrounding St. Johns County were open.  

Andy Levinson, senior vice president of tournament administration for the PGA Tour, sat comfortably at an information booth in a hospitality tent. It was an annual tradition for he and Andy Pazder, chief of tournaments and competition, to work a shift together as ambassadors to kick off the Players Championship. Tour brass directing fans on the best routes to the 17th green or the restroom had something of the cheerful air of the queen volunteering at a soup kitchen. “It was always one of the most fun days of the year,” Levinson says. “I’m there by myself wondering where Andy is, and soon my phone starts going crazy.” 

Part of that craziness involved the critical tweets of several players, the sharpest from Lucas Glover, about what he and others viewed as an inadequate response to the country’s dawning awareness of a deadly pandemic. To start the week, the ATP Tour had canceled its tennis tournament in California. The NBA had postponed its season the night before. That morning, MLS announced it was postponing, followed by the NHL. College sporting events were dropping by the minute. But the PGA Tour was proceeding as normal, and only without fans starting Friday. In an act of prescience, golfer C.T. Pan withdrew immediately and flew home to Houston. 

The tour had known about the virus since the national health emergency was declared in January. The week before the Players, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, there had been zero communication to golfers on the topic. “No one was the wiser; none of this was expected,” says Anirban Lahiri, who had missed that cut and flown home for the India Open, not knowing he was about to go 73 days without hitting a golf ball. Lahiri got updates on these first fraught moments at the Players from afar. Levinson, whose foray into medicine had never gone further than drug-testing players for banned substances, had no idea that educating himself on the facts of the virus would fall on him so squarely that he would acquire the nickname “Doc” Levinson. 

Levinson stuck out his shift at the hospitality tent until late morning, then bolted to the second-floor boardroom of the clubhouse to join PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, Pazder and others in a revolving meeting that would last until 9:30 that night. Levinson began working the phones of physicians with the tour’s medical advisor, Dr. Tom Hospel. There were less than a handful of known cases in Florida, so they received mostly general information about infectious diseases. (Hospel is something of a superhuman who would attend the first 10 events of the tour’s restart, all while maintaining his medical practice in Dublin, Ohio, and serving as a consultant to the NBA and a pro soccer team during the pandemic.)  

Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour senior vice president and chief of operations, led an emergency meeting to draft a plan for, at least, the next day. The tour had a precedent of single rounds without spectators after severely damaging storms, but this was new. To limit the number of people on property meant thinking through the player’s experience from arrival to departure. Dennis’ young son was set to be a standard bearer, but of course, with no fans to see players’ scores, that was out, as were marshals, most security, hospitality workers and more. The event still needed security at the gates, ShotLink laser spotters for the broadcast, range pickers and some food service. In a few hours, 2,000 volunteers were culled to less than 400. 

“Remarkably, the plan we came up with that afternoon ended up being pretty similar to what we used all year,” Dennis says.  

As tour executives scrambled to think through options, players demonstrated their uncanny ability to focus amid distraction. With conditions benign, they ripped TPC Sawgrass apart. “It was just business as usual—go out there, go to work. I didn’t really think much about it,” said Patrick Cantlay, who shot 67 playing with Hideki Matsuyama, whose 63 tied the course record even with a wet bogey on the par-5 16th. If a golfer had skipped the news and locker-room small talk, the news found him. People in the gallery made comments. Leader boards flashed the notice about no fans the next day. “At one point, I was nearly expecting the horns to go off and for us all to be taken off,” said Graeme McDowell after a 68. Foreshadowing the divide about to grip the country, some fans vacated quickly while others stayed in the spirit of making the most of it while they could. 

PLAY IS SUSPENDED. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan canceled The Players on March 12 after the first round. Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images.

Late that afternoon, as Justin Rose and Cheyenne Woods mingled out of obligation with clients of a financial firm, Tracy West, the tournament director for the following week’s Valspar Championship, received a call from the tour. (The Tampa Bay event has the unfortunate distinction of twice being canceled. It occupied the date on the schedule after September 11, 2001.) West was also the tournament’s director in 2001 and had that experience to lean on when she was asked to develop, rapidly, a new safety plan from scratch. She and her staff spent five manic hours calling health officials and hospitals and doing things like drafting alternative bussing procedures. At 9 p.m., everyone was fried, and she told them to go home. 

Even in a normal year, the Players is a week of increased dialogue among golfers and the people who work at the organization’s headquarters. “There was a sentiment from many players, but not all, that we should soldier on, show people we can play PGA Tour golf safely, be a beacon,” Pazder says. “But then within 24 hours the pendulum swung the other way in the view of most players that we needed to do the responsible thing and stop play. It was a really fascinating stretch of time.” When Disney World, just a two-hour drive to the south, announced closure of its theme parks, a bell was rung. 

The country was shutting down, and the stock market had plummeted. Monahan looked around a boardroom of successful professionals from legal, broadcast and business backgrounds, and no one had an answer. A mixture of rumors and news was beginning to circulate about various countries imposing travel bans, which had the potential to affect nearly two dozen golfers in the field. 

“The [weather] forecast was perfect. We had talked to the governor and the mayor. Since we had eliminated fans, I still felt confident we could execute the event,” Monahan remembers. Toward the end of the evening, Laura Neal, senior vice president of communications, said to the room, “What would a reasonable person expect us to do?”  


STROKE AND DISTANCE. Thursday at The Players Championship would be the tour’s last round until June 11. Photo by Ben Jared/PGA Tour via Getty Images.

At 9:30 p.m., West simultaneously received a call, email and text from the tour imploring her to join a conference call that would start in 10 minutes. On that call, she learned that the tour was canceling the Players, her event and the two after. Minutes after she hung up, the players were emailed the same update. They would split that week’s pot, and so Matsuyama’s 63 would be worth the same—$52,083—as the last-place 79s by Patton Kizzire and Nick Watney. 

As for West, it would be months before the financial cost to her event was fully accounted. Grandstands, tents, and fences never used were taken down. Including the purse, the cost of putting on a typical PGA Tour event can be about $20 million, and the economic impact on a region can be as much as $50 million, which includes spending on hotels, gas, meals and more. “We’d prepared this wonderful party, and the rug was pulled out from under us,” West says. “Of course, as our perspective grew about the disease, we realized we shouldn’t mourn for more than about five minutes.” In the end, it was a consequential loss but not exceeding the tournament’s reserve funds. “Almost all our local partners took smaller refunds than they contractually could’ve taken. Some left the money as a rollover to the next year; others said just give us half back,” West says. Although charity dollars are traditionally raised through things like parking, concessions and ticket sales, money is fungible. Copperhead Charities still managed to give $1.4 million.     

DESERTED ISLAND. Canceling tournaments meant painful phone calls to sponsors and connected charities. Photo by Ben Jared/PGA Tour via Getty Images.

The atmosphere was mixed at TPC Sawgrass as players cleared out their lockers Friday. International players scrambled to make travel arrangements, uncertain when they would return, while others celebrated the start of a forced vacation. “There were a lot of guys drinking. We went across the street to a beach club and had lunch and cocktails by the pool. It was a fun vibe,” says Joel Dahmen, who later that afternoon played miniature golf with his wife. Dahmen was fresh off back-to-back T-5 finishes, so a shortened season meant fewer events for those who had started slower to catch him in FedEx Cup points, a list that included guns like Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler. That night, Dahmen caught a ride home to Phoenix in another golfer’s private jet. “Honestly, I enjoyed the time off. Our weather at home is perfect in spring, our gym was open, I could play as much golf as I wanted, we hung out and cooked meals with our neighbors who had a new baby. To do nothing was special because we never get to do that.” 


Golf was the last sport to stop playing and the first to return. With the virus raging as we enter 2021, this is no time for a victory parade. Pro golf isn’t returning to normal anytime soon, but we might pause to examine a season now in the books. There were mistakes and learning moments, but against a backdrop of so many failures elsewhere, golf won. How? When it comes to the universal issues—racial integration, gender equality, hoodies—historically golf has followed. But with COVID it led. If we consider the Masters the psychological finish, the year’s traditional first major as last, 15 positive player tests across a span of 17 tournaments was a notable achievement. Through early December, more than 27,000 tests were administered across the PGA, Korn Ferry and Champions tours. In all, 100,000 masks and more than a million disinfectant wipes were purchased. These costs, in combination with other losses from spectator-less events, would contribute to the tour laying off nearly 50 staffers by August. Around every corner of every dogleg, optical and financial disasters loomed. Did golf get lucky, or is its success more deserved, a variant of the Gary Player line, “The more I practice, the luckier I get”?  

What’s certain is the PGA Tour administration never worked harder, albeit from home. The three-month break from competition transpired in essentially three overlapping phases: (1) Canceling tournaments, 11 total on the PGA Tour, which meant painful phone calls to sponsors and charitable organizations, who then had to act quickly to mitigate financial losses across the supply chains of everything that goes into hosting upward of 40,000 people a day on a golf course. (2) Organizing a new schedule, an ever-changing puzzle, the first piece of which was solved partly by the White House when it suggested that early June would be a reasonable time to restart because widespread testing would be available by then. Even with that beta, at one point, Dennis had a spreadsheet with more than 50 versions of a schedule that accommodated everything from shifts in comfort levels of host cities to golf-course overseeding dates. (3) Developing health and safety procedures for players, caddies and essential staff, all of which changed frequently with science’s understanding of the virus.  

For this final and rather critical phase, the tour had direct access to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via the White House Coronavirus Task Force. For the myriad ways this task force can be rightly criticized for its handling of the pandemic—a numerous and diverse collection of other countries kept the virus in check much more successfully—this rare assembly of professional sports leagues was useful in the narrow purview of the participants. Commissioners from multiple sports joined regular calls with representatives from the CDC to get virus developments in real time. 

“It’s not often sports leagues come together to discuss how we’re going to handle a challenge,” Monahan says. “It was a level of transparency we don’t often get. We shared medical research, doctors, protocols. . . . That we could present what we were thinking about doing to this group gave us the added confidence to move forward. We pulled from other leagues, and I believe they pulled from us.”                   

As for setting up the tournaments, seemingly any small detail could ignite a series of conference calls. If a course had to be evacuated for lightning, how would golf carts be delivered to each golfer, instead of rounding the players up in vans as usual? If scorecards were really part of the sanctity of the competitive experience, how would scoring tables be arranged and continuously sanitized? If all food was packaged for grab and go, would nutritionally minded golfers want to be emailed menus in advance, and who would handle that? Was it possible to choreograph enough social distance among a maintenance staff of more than a hundred mowers and bunker rakers that deploys before dawn? None of the problems were unsolvable, but adding tasks while reducing overall headcount made heads hurt. And this was assuming the elephants in the virtual meeting rooms—safe air travel, effective testing and contact tracing, an equitable points system that wouldn’t unfairly deride the career of a golfer who was stuck abroad or fearful to return or both—also got sorted. 


PLENTY OF DISTANCE. When the tour resumed in June, everything, including the media center, had a different feel. Photo by Darren Carroll.

On March 17, tennis’ French Open claimed a starting date in late September lest another tennis tournament claim it first. To prevent similar unilateral moves in golf, Monahan started a daily call among the heads of golf’s families with the goal of solving for the four majors and the Ryder Cup. Mike Davis of the USGA, Martin Slumbers of the Royal and Ancient, Fred Ridley of Augusta National, Seth Waugh of the PGA of America, Keith Pelley of the European Tour, Mike Whan of the LPGA Tour and Will Jones of the World Golf Hall of Fame all participated. As much as competition exists among most of these entities for attention, sponsorship and TV dollars for their events, “together they make the ecosystem of golf,” says Waugh, who remembers these meetings as “a bit like Lord of The Flies at times, but there was this overriding peer pressure to act in the best interest of the game. If somebody started acting selfish, the group called that person out for it. The financials always matter, but this crisis was existential.” 

On April 6, the Open Championship was canceled. It had full insurance, but more importantly for the oldest major, no chance given the stricter attitudes and regulations toward the pandemic in Europe. This opening let golf’s schedule fall into place 10 days later. The logos of all the major golf associations—even the usually restrictive Augusta National—appeared together on one press release.  

Just as the action of a golf tournament is diffuse compared to that within a sports stadium, so too is the operational responsibility. A pro season is a web of venues, governing associations, sponsors, host organizations, media partners, vendors and volunteers of varying and unique relationships. As much as the decisions of Monahan and his key advisors held the lantern, behind them was something like—pardon the treacle—the ethos of golf that made everyone march in the same direction. When no one was looking, lots of people trusted one another to do the right thing. A caddie properly administered a nasal self-test at home. A company that bought a charity foursome in a pro-am that was never played didn’t ask for money back. A food handler replaced her plastic gloves after a sneeze. 


TAKING PRECAUTIONS. Health and safety procedures for players, caddies and essential staff changed frequently with science’s understanding of the virus. Photos by Darren Carroll.

With May came made-for-TV foursomes for charity. Thanks to Seminole Golf Club president Jimmy Dunne rallying his membership to host TaylorMade Driving Relief—with local residents Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Matt Wolff playing for skins—the course was seen on TV for the first time. This slightly spoiled the intrigue of the 2021 Walker Cup, but the event garnered more interest and donations than if it had been played across town at The Club at Admiral’s Cove, where it was originally slated. A week later at Medalist Golf Club, The Match 2.0 with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady might have been a wash had the merely heavy rain turned biblical a few hours earlier. Rebooking and retesting the TV production crew that flew in under the earliest and most cumbersome precautionary measures might have proved too much hassle. More than 14 inches of rain fell, and a damaged Medalist didn’t open for six weeks.     

Levinson remembers the ultimate good break as a phone call he fielded from his makeshift office at the nightstand in his guest bedroom. Miller Brady, president of PGA Tour Champions, had suggested Levinson and Hospel speak with the sponsor of his tour’s South Dakota event, Sanford Health. The company had a fleet of “mobile health units,” or trailers outfitted with medical equipment it had used to provide healthcare to oil workers in the region during the fracking boom. It wouldn’t be much effort to modify a couple into testing labs that could travel from event to event. This would solve two key problems: fast and direct results to fit the rhythms of a weekly tournament and not detracting from the resources of a local community. 

“At that time we had been approached by maybe 60 companies trying to sell us their tests,” Levinson says. “These were mostly people who had purchased early significant quantities of the rapid antibody test, which was never approved by the FDA. Many were aggressive, but some were people we knew through tour relationships, so we had to listen to everybody. After the call with Sanford Health, Hospel and I were, like, Wow, we might have just found the answer. 

MASKED MAN. Jon Rahm at the Masters in November. Photo by Ben Walton.

With a plan coalescing, Levinson, Hospel and Eric Baldwin, vice president of business development for the PGA Tour, began The Return to Golf Roadshow, the video conference presentation they delivered weekly to persuade host cities to let them come. Typically these calls included the local mayor and representatives from the public health and transportation offices. “Our goal was to talk to anyone we needed to get their permission and buy-in. We were never heavy-handed. It was us proposing what we’d like to do rather than what we planned to do,” Levinson says. Some markets proved unviable, such as Quad Cities, where the smallish clubhouse and parking lots of TPC Deere Run made adhering to safety guidelines unworkable. 

The golfers needed convincing, too. Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner, James Hahn and Johnson Wagner, who comprise the player board of directors, were the first to listen to a 40-slide presentation delivered by Pazder. It didn’t go well. The plan was airtight but untenable. Accounting for every possible movement and interaction, it outlined a program of caddies carrying wipes to disinfect clubs, players raking their own bunkers, an onerous at-home testing regimen and more. “I got off that call, thinking, Oh, boy, we’ve put all this time and effort into this, and it’s not going to work,” Monahan says. “We’d already announced our schedule, but the plan felt completely . . . unnatural. If we couldn’t get it to work, we’d have to cancel the season.”  

Several revisions of the plan would also be presented to the Player Advisory Council, which has 16 members, from stars like McIlroy and Jon Rahm to rank-and-file players like Peter Malnati and Ryan Armour. Normally, the PAC meets a couple of times a year, but the frequency was weekly throughout the break. Forgoing caddies was seriously discussed. “A lot of us said, sure, we’ll carry our bags, but there were a lot of us who said caddies were integral to our performance and didn’t want to jeopardize our careers by having the quality of our golf go down,” says Lahiri, who sipped coffee in India at 1:30 a.m. on these calls. A steady flow of new information from the CDC and World Health Organization helped inform discussions for topics like the safety of players’ families, expectations for the return of the fitness trailer, and a $100,000 stipend for any player who got stuck quarantining as long as he hadn’t flouted safety guidelines. Embarrassingly privileged as that figure might sound, consider travel costs and the lost opportunity of playing two tournaments. The overriding sentiment among players, of course, was a willingness to accept disruptions to their routines to get back to competing for money.  

“What I’m astonished by is we had perfect attendance in every session,” Pazder says of the PAC meetings.  

“After about the fourth or fifth meeting, Pazder took pity on me and started scheduling them in the morning so I could jump on around 10 p.m. my time,” Lahiri says. 

When the tour did return, at Colonial Country Club the second week of June, Levinson promptly drove straight from the airport to an arena parking lot in Fort Worth. There he found a testing trailer flanked by a series of white tents manned by a seemingly well-trained staff and markings on the asphalt indicating where to stand. “To this point, all our conversations about our player-testing zone had been abstract. To finally see it built, my first impression was, This looks substantial; this will work.” Personally, it was Levinson’s first test, as well as his first time working outside his home. “Of course, I had that slight anxiety I’d test positive.” (He didn’t.) 

Hospel was similarly satisfied by the setup but had misgivings about some behavior. “The players were excited to be back. Everybody looked healthy, and all the players on-site had tested clean, so there was some complacency with guys high-fiving and not social distancing,” Hospel says. Disinfectant wipes for flagsticks and rakes were widely disregarded.  

“There was a feeling among some players that a lot of what we were doing was for perception,” Dahmen says. 

“There was and probably still is a significant part of our membership that doesn’t understand what it took to get to the first tee at Colonial,” Dennis says. 

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN. Fans catch a glimpse of Jordan Spieth in June. Photo by Darren Carroll.


The inherent social distancing of an individual game played outside across hundreds of acres and the advantages of an affluent demographic were always obvious. More than ever, traveling in style meant traveling in safety, and pro golfers could afford to do it right. Many players flew on private planes, and a regular tour charter provided a way for other players and caddies to fly in relative safety. Rules and procedures for testing negative before boarding the charter merged with other rules and procedures for prioritizing first-class seats by membership status, with first-class seats always reserved for the winner and caddie of the previous event. Nick Watney was not aboard that first charter to the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island, where on Friday morning he would be alerted to irregular breathing patterns in his sleep by a WHOOP fitness bracelet. 

We won’t spend time recounting every positive test of the season, but the observed recklessness of the Hilton Head populace (“It’s an absolute zoo around here,” Justin Thomas told the Golf Channel) combined with more positive tests the next tournament week were, if not a wake-up call, a period of significant learning. Around this time in Europe, world No. 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic was being excoriated for a loosely organized exhibition after which he and three other players tested positive. Partly because of being in the New York City virus vector, and partly because of the extra cautiousness imposed by the spirit of an insurance company title-sponsor, it was a tighter ship at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn.  

“I wasn’t scared, but I understood the gravity of the situation, and I wanted to be able to look back with no regrets,” says Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube, who oversaw melding the local safety plan with the tour’s. “It sounds corny, but the experience reaffirmed just what great people are involved from our event from all sides. No one was territorial. To figure things out we slowly took steps in every direction until we couldn’t take anymore.” At one point, Grube decided there would be no coffee for volunteers because the logistics of safely adding hot-beverage service across the grounds would strain an already taxed system. Where was the coffee coming from, who was transporting it, and who was testing those people?  

In the end, Grube, a coffee-lover, figured out a way to get java to his volunteers. Despite the increased strictness—his was the first event to mandate masks for everybody outside the ropes at all times—it was here the tour would live some of its most anxious hours. And it wasn’t the seven withdrawals. Nor was it Cameron Champ getting a massage in the fitness trailer while awaiting a test result that would return positive. Nor was it Jason Day playing as a single on Saturday as a precaution.  

On Friday, a prominent player woke up with congestion and a severe headache. He had flown on the tour’s charter flight from Hilton Head. Contact tracing would implicate nearly half the field plus their caddies. Could the tournament go on? “We were holding our breath, wondering if the next hour was going to look like the last hour,” says Salvatore Nesci, the public-health coordinator for the town of Cromwell, Conn. It took three hours from the time of the player’s phone call to that player arriving for testing to his sample returning from the lab.  

Then a huge sigh of relief. 

“He had a 24-hour bug,” Levinson says. “It was a reminder that there are other things beside COVID that can make you really sick. A lot was made that Hartford was the week where the tour almost shut down. But really, it was both us and the media experiencing some things for the first time.” 

“Not to knock Texas and the Carolinas, but it was a pivotal moment in starting to follow the true definition of contact tracing,” Nesci says. This meant being stricter and more organized with cohorts on the front end, a tactic that would be adopted by school systems in months to come. 

“At that time there were still so many unknowns. The local health officials gave us good guidance on how to manage exposure,” Hospel says.  


THE NOSE KNOWS. Ian Poulter shared a video of himself getting a COVID-19 swab test before a tournament. Courtesy of Ian Poulter/Twitter.

Unlike basketball and hockey teams that would stay in a single hotel to finish an entire season, “bubble” was always going to be a loose concept for golfers traveling from city to city. Half the players on a charter flight meant half were not. Wives not allowed on tournament grounds still went about town and slept next to their husbands. Responsibility ultimately fell to the individual to “protect the field.” Monahan recorded private video messages at once congratulating and imploring players to follow CDC guidelines and the local rules of wherever they traveled. Players eyed one another carrying takeout bags to their hotel rooms wearing masks, as well as venturing to restaurants with outdoor dining. 

Adjustments continued. Knowing they would likely be leaked anyway, the buttoned-up department of the tour that sends emails to players made the unusual move of also disseminating these to the media to avoid misinformation and speculation. There would be no more hitting range balls or visiting the fitness trailer while awaiting test results, obvious as that seems in retrospect. A victory was scored at the federal level when international golfers and coaches entering the United States would no longer have to quarantine for two weeks because they would be covered by the tour’s testing protocols. Another carve-out from the CDC allowed certain asymptomatic golfers who continued to test positive with dead virus to keep competing as long as they stayed out of the clubhouse and locker room. Player agents, originally deemed non-essential, could come to the tournament if their client was in contention on Sundays at the majors. (The rule would be top 12 at the PGA, top 10 at the U.S. Open and top five at The Masters.)   

That Saturday at the Barracuda Championship at Lake Tahoe, Branden Grace withdrew while tied for second place before he knew his test results, poised for a significant payday even if the onset of suspicious symptoms should cause him to limp in. His test was in fact positive, and he immediately began self-isolation in his RV. Because he was the only player to miss the year’s first major, the PGA Championship, for testing positive, this caught much attention. But again, it was the collective and unseen behavior of many players and caddies that was keeping the tour going. In the fall, consecutive weeks in the Las Vegas area would surely provide temptation to go out on the town.  

QUIET ON THE TEE. Justin Thomas at a patronless Masters. Photo by Ben Walton.

“I’ve said it many times but underlying all of this was my supreme confidence in our players,” Monahan says. 

By the time Tiger Woods returned for the second of back-to-back events at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, a rhythm had been found. Little nuisances, like the unsightly number of carts seen on a broadcast without crowds to block them, began to draw ire. “When [Collin] Morikawa beat [Justin] Thomas in the playoff at Workday, I counted 33 carts on the 18th hole!” says Pazder, who knew this as a pet peeve of former commissioner Tim Finchem in simpler times. 

In case you’ve ever attended a professional tournament and felt dismissed by the distant stare of a star golfer, the truth is, they love to show off and desperately want the inspiration of your anonymous presence. Woods’ path around the course was no doubt easier, but he has ridden a swell of fan support like no other to his 82 PGA Tour victories. As much as the return had the vibe of an extended buddies trip with a big pot, it wasn’t long before McDowell remarked that he felt “like a golf zombie.” McIlroy said he had found it tough to motivate himself. After Houston, the first event to have 2,000 fans, Shane Lowry told Woods, “It was pretty exciting just to have the energy level of 200 people out there following.” 

At the Tour Championship in September, the broadcast refrained from emphasizing how much money each shot was worth, a departure from the normal FedEx Cup chat, in recognition of wider economic hardship. At the November Masters, most members didn’t wear their green jacket. The original purpose of the jacket was ambassadorial, making members readily identifiable to patrons seeking assistance. Of course, the jackets have come to project much else given the societal and economic weight of the membership. Whatever their meaning, at a Masters without patrons it would have been tacky to flaunt a green jacket when it was so effortless to watch, wholly unobstructed, every single shot DJ, Tiger or any player hit as if it were the Augusta National Club Championship. (Augusta National does not have a club championship.) 

Hollywood has hardly produced anything since March. Not to overstate what televised entertainment does or doesn’t do to nourish the soul, but in 2020 sports picked up the slack. Partly out of belief in the impossible but mainly through the tedium of competent and efficient office work, golf figured out a way to be the first sport back and to restore definition to our weeks. Recreational participation shot up, too, and record equipment sales were driven by new, returning and casual players. Other sports have also had success, but with marring incidents like a baseball player taking the field in the World Series knowing he’d tested positive and college football games being canceled because of team-wide outbreaks.  


A FITTING END. Tiger Woods slips the green jacket on 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson. Photo by Ben Walton.

Books of tired aphorisms contend that golf is like life, but maybe golf is like COVID. Swing flaws are viruses that creep undetected for days or even weeks and then sometimes vanish without the golfer ever knowing he was infected. To manage them while continuously plotting around the hazards of a course requires non-reflexive and methodical reactions, or else one is bound to make a big number. In other words, golf people don’t freak out.  

No one personifies this attitude better than the sport’s No. 1 player, who won this curtailed season’s Tour Championship and the Masters, testing positive for the coronavirus one cycle of the moon in between. That Dustin Johnson’s quarantine for 11 days in a hotel room registered more as a news clipping than a cataclysm spoke to the fact that pandemic golf had arrived in a good place by then. 

Of course, the outcome of a physically fit athlete in the prime of life should in no way lessen the collective respect and vigilance we need to continue the battle against this deadly virus. But as far as pro golf goes, let’s give DJ the last word:  

“I know 2020 has been a really strange year, but it’s been good to me.”