Coronavirus and golf: Pandemic halts professional play

With the plug pulled on many golf events, maintenance teams may not get to showcase their months of work on schedule or at all. But disappointment doesn’t mean they’re dialing back.


Austin Country Club
Maintenance crew members on the staff of Bobby Stringer, CGCS, at Austin (Texas) Country Club were busy Tuesday morning despite the golf course being closed for a week. The facility was to welcome the World Golf Championships’ Dell Technologies Match Play on March 25, but the PGA Tour has canceled the event. Photo courtesy of Bobby Stringer

Editor’s note: Get updates from the PGA Tour and the USGA on their latest event postponements and cancellations.

The phone call that shed light on the immediate future of professional golf came after dark.

Jeff Plotts, director of golf course operations at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., had just climbed behind the wheel of his golf cart and was headed to his home across the street from the facility last Thursday evening, March 12, after the first round of the 2020 Players Championship. Then the news arrived.

“I was told that the event had been canceled. I’d already sent the staff home (for the day), and the volunteers were back at their hotel,” says Plotts, a 26-year GCSAA member.

Now the question is when — or whether — tournament golf will be back at all.

At the same time the PGA Tour announced the cancellation of the Players Championship because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also called off play on all of its tours through April 5. This week, the PGA Tour expanded that to events scheduled through May 10. The LPGA Tour and its feeder tour, the Symetra, are on hold until April 5.

The majors haven’t been immune to the impact of COVID-19 either. The Masters, which was to be contested April 9-12, has been postponed, and reports indicate Augusta National will close to members by the end of this week.

The PGA Championship, set for May 11-17 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, has been postponed.

The USGA called off its first two big events of the year — the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball and the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball — and has altered qualifying for both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open.

But it was Plotts and the crew assembled to prepare TPC Sawgrass for the Players who found themselves as the tip of the iceberg. On the morning of Friday, March 13, hours after the cancellation announcement, Plotts gathered his staff of 112 plus the 95 volunteers on hand from 18 different countries for a breakfast, and to help ensure that those who had come from outside the States (volunteers had traveled from places such as Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ireland and Nigeria) could make it home. Plotts says the last of those international volunteers, from England, left Florida on Monday.

GCSAA TV was on-site at TPC Sawgrass early last week, documenting prep work for the 2020 Players Championship before the tournament was eventually called off:

“Some of them had to rearrange their trips, but I’m hearing from everyone they got home safe and are good,” Plotts says.

Although he couldn’t see his event to completion, Plotts says he isn’t feeling sorry for himself. “At least the show showed up for us. For others in our industry, it was almost right there, everything was built, and they won’t get to see it through,” he says.

Letdown in the Lone Star State

Among those on the cusp was one of Plotts’ longtime friends, Bobby Stringer, CGCS. He and his team at Austin (Texas) Country Club were all set to host the World Golf Championships’ Dell Technologies Match Play March 25-29. Hospitality tents had been constructed, there were portable toilets aplenty, and staff and volunteer uniforms were ready for distribution.

While saddened by the event’s cancellation, Stringer, a 24-year GCSAA member, says he understands why golf has come to a standstill. “It’s disappointing, but, hey, it was the right decision,” he says. “My staff is staying positive. They want to keep working.”

Tournament prep for Stringer and his team began last fall, and the fruits of their labor have been rewarding. “We began tournament prep for this in October when we overseeded. The overseeded surfaces are perfect. The greens, the collars, the fairways ... it’s been the best year for overseeding that we’ve had,” Stringer says.

This week was scheduled to be advance week for the WGC event, which meant the course would be closed for preparation. Instead of having professionals on the grounds of Austin CC, though, the club’s members continued to turn out. Stringer says the course totaled 153 rounds on Sunday and remained open until the club announced Monday night it would close for a week. Stringer says he will have his full staff continue to handle their duties even though the club isn’t open.

As for those tents, trailers and other trappings, “It’s all coming down two weeks earlier than normal,” Stringer says. The uniforms, however, can be saved for next time: “They don’t have the year of the event on them,” Stringer says.

Dealing with disappointment

The Landings Club near Savannah, Ga., was supposed to host the Korn Ferry Tour’s Savannah Golf Championship April 2-5. Chris Steigelman, CGCS, director of golf maintenance at The Landings Club, says it has been quite a whirlwind since the PGA Tour’s announcement last week. “I’ll tell you, it’s a different story every day,” says Steigelman, a 17-year GCSAA member. “We were just starting to ramp up and put on the finishing touches when we found out it was canceled.”

This was to be the third consecutive year The Landings Club hosted the tournament. When Steigelman informed his crew that it wouldn’t be happening, “There was a lot of disappointment on the staff’s faces. It’s something they take a lot of pride in and look forward to,” he says. “It’s extra icing on the cake to showcase your product for something like this.”

Back at TPC Sawgrass, the course reopened for play Tuesday. Although he never had the opportunity to coordinate a Players Championship staff and volunteer group picture last week, Plotts says some of those volunteers have already pledged to come back next year. And Plotts sees a silver lining to what has been quite a week.

“This gave us three extra days to prepare for the 2021 event,” Plotts says. “We need to make sure 2021 is the best event ever.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.