Fans' return has sports roaring back to life, from the PGA Championship to Madison Square Garden

As he marched down the 18th fairway on Sunday, en route to a historic PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson was mobbed by a mass of maskless golf fans. They shouted encouragement, patted him on the back and lived up a moment to savor.

If there were any safety worries, they centered on Phil getting knocked over, not breathed on.

“It was slightly unnerving,” said Mickelson, who was 200-to-1 to win at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, “but exceptionally awesome.”

About the same time, some 750 miles north, some 15,047 New York Knick fans crowded into Madison Square Garden where they would scream and stomp and bask in the ending of an eight-season playoff drought. By the end, their greatest concern wasn’t contracting a virus, but Atlanta star Trae Young, who scored 32 points while playfully taunting the crowd.

“It was amazing in here,” said Knicks guard R.J. Barrett.

It was. It really was.

On March 11, 2020, the NBA pulled the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder off the court just moments before a scheduled tip-off and postponed the game due to a positive COVID test from Rudy Gobert. Twenty minutes later, commissioner Adam Silver suspended the season.

The NHL, MLB, NCAA, PGA, NASCAR and other sports leagues soon followed. Even local tennis courts and public golf courses — extremely distanced activities — were closed to public play in nearly every state. In some places masks were required on hiking trails.

For many Americans, that was the moment the coronavirus became real. It was hurtling toward that inevitability, of course. The NBA decision was the culmination of a day that saw actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson reveal they had tested positive and a prediction by Dr. Anthony Fauci that the virus would get far worse.

Still, sports told plenty of us that COVID was serious, that life would be altered, that what was to come was uncertain and uncharted, challenging and even tragic.

Fans packed Madison Square Garden for the Knicks' playoff opener against the Hawks on Sunday, and it was a welcome sight. (Photo by Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images)
Fans packed Madison Square Garden for the Knicks' playoff opener against the Hawks on Sunday, and it was a welcome sight. (Photo by Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images)

And perhaps it is sports — or more notably, scenes of mass gatherings and joyous celebrations from locations as diverse as an oceanfront golf course in the South to a cramped arena in the heart of Manhattan — that will tell us the pandemic is, in many ways, over.

Not officially, of course. There are still those who are sick. There are still those who will get sick. There are still those who will die. There are still heroic frontline workers and medical professionals fighting the best fight they can fight. COVID will be stubborn, in part because Americans are stubborn and will never vaccinate their way to herd immunity.

But the numbers are low and continue to drop fast. Pretty much anyone who wants a vaccine can get one in a few minutes. It’s a personal choice at this point. This is a free country.

In the meantime, life is roaring back with the ferocity of that playoff-desperate Knicks crowd, or that sun-soaked, beer-fueled golf gallery.

If postponed games and bizarro scenes such as empty NFL stadiums or an NBA playoff contested inside an Orlando bubble came to define the impact of the virus on this country, so too does the reversal.

Sports has long served as an American collective, its gathering spot, its town square. They play the national anthem before games, not movies or plays or dinners or whatever. Presidents throw out first pitches. Cities construct billion-dollar palaces to stage the games, shining diamonds that can define downtowns.

When a local team wins, massive parades are held.

Now here comes this.

In New York, where the virus hit hardest 14 months ago, capacity limits for sports have been almost completely restored. Only the NBA-mandated open space around parts of the court and the team benches kept MSG from being fully full. It was the same scene in Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Brooklyn over the weekend, or with the NHL's New York Islanders out in Nassau County.

These weren’t the first of their kind, but they represent a huge swing in momentum. The Texas Rangers played to a full house in Arlington on opening day. A hockey series in Florida has been packed. The UFC staged full-attendance cards in Jacksonville and Houston.

It’s everywhere now. In Boston, upcoming Celtics and Bruins playoff games will be played in front of near-full houses. Pennsylvania is halfway there and likely headed to no attendance caps. California and elsewhere too.

By football season, forget it. The roar will return.

And again, it’s not just that fans are present. If anything, last weekend showed they were more passionate than ever. Maybe it’s the appreciation of what was temporarily lost. Maybe it’s the desire to once again be part of a collective — to be a part of a physical, vocal, like-minded group after so many months of isolation and division.

So now you scream louder, root harder, celebrate more enthusiastically. You have that extra beer and lose your mind in the action. It isn’t enough to clap for Phil Mickelson, you need to swarm him.

Perhaps the only caveat is that success here isn’t success everywhere, which will impact (if not outright cancel) the summer’s biggest sporting event — the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Vaccination rates in Japan are woefully low — a reported 3 percent — and public concern over staging a global event has left doubt about them occurring, even as local officials and the IOC have assured they will. If it goes off, it’ll be a television-only production.

That would be a disappointment, a throwback to those dark, unsteady days of 2020 for Americans.

It will be a reminder of what we went through.

And how making it to the other side is so worthy of cheers.

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