Early on a Friday morning in late September, the air not yet warmed by a rising sun. A horseshoe-shaped grandstand around the first tee at Hazeltine National, every last spot claimed. Two hours before the first match of the 2016 Ryder Cup, chants and cheers bouncing back and forth like a verbal ping-pong ball.
Then the players stride onto the tee box and the roar is so loud it has weight.
No other event in golf (and few in sports) is so dependent on spectators to help create the atmosphere that sparks the electricity that fuels the drama that becomes the magic. The players feed off the noise, the home team inspired by it, the visitors determined to overcome it.
There was a time when the PGA of America couldn’t give away tickets to the Ryder Cup. This year, they sold out in an hour – some 200,000 of them – for the biennial matches, Sept. 25-27 at Whistling Straits.
And now, with the possibility that the insidious coronavirus won’t go away quietly in the coming months, the PGA is considering a spectator-less Ryder Cup.
In an interview Sunday on a New York radio station, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh acknowledged that “the fans are the Ryder Cup, to a certain degree,” but admitted the organization is discussing playing the matches without spectators at the Straits.
“We have begun to talk about whether you could create some virtual fan experience, and we’re going to try to be as creative as we can,” Waugh told WFAN. “It’s (still) to be determined, frankly, whether you could hold it without fans or not.”
Here’s the answer, Seth:
No, you cannot.
Without spectators, there will be no reason for Rory McIlroy to put his hand to his ear and defiantly mouth, “I can’t year you!” after pouring in another birdie putt. There will be no reason for Ian Poulter to scream, “Come on!” at the top of his lungs. Fist pumps by U.S. players will be met by silence, matches won by the soft buzz of a generator somewhere in the distance.
Virtual fan experience? No matter the technology, it’s no substitute for being there.
Sometimes, there is no compromise. Sometimes, there is only one way forward.
As noble as it is to try to keep the Ryder Cup in its scheduled dates, with other tournaments postponed or canceled and the major championships back-ended to save what’s left of the 2020 season, we’d just as soon wait another year to watch the players battle for Sam Ryder’s 17-inch trophy than see them go through the motions sans fans.
If you’re going to play it without spectators, don’t play it at all. Whistling Straits isn’t going anywhere. The vast majority of people who won tickets in the lottery aren’t going to give them up. Sure, it’s asking a lot of the sponsors, many of them companies that will have been impacted by COVID-19, but we’re willing to bet the hospitality tents won’t be empty.
The Ryder Cup has been a cash cow for the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe in recent years, but we’re headed for a new normal.
Last week, the PGA Tour announced that when the season restarts in June, the first four tournaments will be played without fans. Waugh said the PGA Championship, moved from May to August, also could be played without fans or could be moved from Harding Park in San Francisco to another site.
Although it would not be ideal, Major League Baseball could play games without fans in the stands and the NBA could resume play in empty arenas, accompanied by a soundtrack of shoes squeaking on hardwood.
But the Ryder Cup without spectators?
That’s as wrong as Tiger Woods wearing beige on Sunday. It’s as wrong as Phil Mickelson laying up with eagle in play. It’s as wrong as Brooks Koepka or Jon Rahm conceding the match, 1-down with two to play.
No fans, no play, no way.