THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Matthew Wolff’s mother lives about 10 minutes from Sherwood Country Club. His swing coach, George Gankas, is 10 minutes in the other direction. And although he grew up on the other side of the posh club’s gilded gates, Wolff still considers this week’s Zozo Championship a home game.
In another time and place, this week’s relocated PGA Tour stop would have been a rare opportunity for the 21-year-old to enjoy being the hometown favorite paired alongside Tiger Woods.
“Playing with [Woods], we would have drawn a really large crowd,” said Wolff, who grew up in nearby Agoura Hills. “I'm sure my family and my friends will probably be hopping house to house and try to catch me on certain holes and stuff. Even though there's not going to be fans allowed, I'm sure they'll try to find a way to come and watch me as much as they can.”
Stealing glimpses from behind fences and “hopping” from house to house has been as close as fans have come to the Tour since Thursday at The Players Championship in March. That afternoon the circuit announced it would play the remainder of the flagship event without fans and within hours of that decision, officials pulled the plug entirely, as sports and society came to a screeching halt in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Play resumed in June, but it’s been lonely without fans, especially at the PGA Championship in August and last month’s U.S. Open. But the long wait is over: officials in Bermuda and Houston plan to allow a limited number of fans on property the next two weeks.
“I love fans. I'm really excited for them to come back,” Wolff said. “It's been difficult coming to all these courses and just kind of having the players and the caddies. You feel it's kind of quiet and, I wouldn't say sad, but it's just usually you come to events and there's people, there's buzz everywhere and people walking all over. I think that fans are really important in not only golf, but just all of sports.”
Considering how surreal Tour life has been without the fans, many players agree with Wolff, but not all have embraced the move. Phil Mickelson voiced concern Wednesday over the timing of the move to bring fans back.
“For me personally, I don't like the risk that having that happen the week before the Masters. I just feel like the week before the Masters, like that's a big tournament we have and I just don't want to have any risk heading in there,” Mickelson said on Wednesday at the Zozo Championship. “It has made me question whether or not I'll play [the Houston Open].”
Lefty went so far as to suggest he’d play the PGA Tour Champions event in Arizona the week of the Houston Open if it allows him to play without fans. No player is more engaged or energized by fans than Mickelson, but with the Masters looming, the risk is clearly not worth the reward.
Those who were concerned about the return of fans didn’t need to search far to justify their reluctance. For the third consecutive week, a top-20 player in the world was forced to withdraw on Wednesday because of a positive COVID-19 test. Last week, it was world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Before that, it was Tony Finau. Now, it's Adam Scott.
While all three of those players should be fully recovered in time for the Masters, a positive test the week before the year’s final major would likely require a withdrawal of the worst kind. But even those who might not have initially embraced the idea of fans back at tournaments have come around in recent weeks as other sports, such as college football and Major League Baseball, have started to allow a limited fan footprint in stadiums.
“I'm more comfortable with it now than I was, say, back when we were going to play the Memorial in July with fans,” Rory McIlroy said. “I think that was the first one and I think everyone was still a little skeptical about that. We just know a little more about COVID and what it does maybe not long-term wise, but at least in the short term.”
Still, McIlroy stressed, “We need to still be careful and protect the communities that we play in.” He’s not scheduled to play either the Bermuda or Houston stops. Like most players, he’s comfortable kicking the coronavirus can down the road until 2021, when he’s hopeful there will be more information on – and maybe even a vaccine for – COVID-19.
The Tour was one of the first sports leagues to return after the quarantine, and it has been widely praised for its relatively successful record since the restart, but when it comes to fans, some players are more comfortable with a cautious approach.