It’s safe to assume that William Shakespeare didn’t have the Waste Management Phoenix Open in mind when he wrote the words, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast,” but tournament organizers could do worse than heed the old tragedian’s warning.
Since the PGA Tour returned from a three-month lockdown in June, galleries have been as little evidenced as Ted Cruz’s spine. The Vivint Houston Open admitted 2,000 spectators in November, before the current post-holiday surge in COVID cases. This week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions won’t have many more spectators than competitors, while Hawaii’s other event, the Sony Open, will have none. And this in a state that has recorded just 287 coronavirus deaths. The first two stops on the mainland will also be fan-free: the American Express and the Farmers Insurance Open in California.
Which brings us to the 86th edition of the drunkest spectacle on grass, which will be staged February 4-7 at TPC Scottsdale. The WMPO was not among the many events adversely impacted last year. This year, the Thunderbirds organization that runs the tournament said it intends to welcome spectators, reportedly about 8,000 of them, in a best-case scenario.
To be fair, that’s smaller than a Saturday bathroom queue at a typical Phoenix Open. The WMPO stopped disclosing attendance figures a few years ago, but it easily draws the stoutest crowds on Tour. In 2018, it had more than 700,000 spectators, some of whom even watched the golf. The enormous charitable impact is rightfully the envy of every other tournament on the schedule: more than $14 million in ‘20 and $160 million in total over the years. Like most things in life and commerce, 2021 will usher in a gaunt version of what we’re accustomed to. The normally expansive corporate build-out at TPC Scottsdale will be greatly reduced in addition to those minimal spectator numbers.
But minimal might still be too much.
“We have been working closely with the PGA Tour and local health officials and are confident that we can safely host a limited number of fans for ‘The People’s Open’ in 2021,” said tournament chairman Scott Jenkins. “We don’t have an exact attendance figure at this time but we will be conservative in all of our decision-making to ensure the health and safety of all involved with the event and our community.”
Jenkins added that he was confident of staging “a safe and responsible” event. Except “safe and responsible” is an elastic term when it comes to the boozy bacchanalia in Scottsdale.
There are two reasons why the WMPO’s plan for fans ought to sound alarm bells in Ponte Vedra.
Bubba Watson tosses bags into the stands on the 16th hole during final round action on Feb. 2 during the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course. Rob Schumacher/The Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK.
The PGA Tour has performed a creditable job in conducting tournaments since June, thanks to stringent safety protocols and maintaining, as best it can, a sterile bubble on site. Seven months into a burdensome new reality, there is finally faint light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines promise something resembling normalcy. This is not a time to gamble, especially not with patrons who have a well-documented record of feckless conduct. Not all of them, obviously, but enough.
Even in the best of times, the WMPO isn’t a model of responsible behavior among spectators, many of whom make for the exits staggering like wobbly cowboys freshly dismounted from a day’s ride. So be it. Don’t like it? Stay home. Those who show up — spectators and players — know what to expect and have forfeited the right to complain. One doesn’t go to a brothel then bemoan the disregard for chastity. That febrile atmosphere is what makes the WMPO so successful and generates those charitable dollars.
But it’s also why the event should not welcome fans next month. Arizona is suffering like every other place. Only six states reported more COVID deaths in the last seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There were 43,332 new cases in Arizona during that period, and more than 9,000 residents have died since the pandemic began. And that’s before the anticipated post-Christmas surge manifests itself. Inviting people to a sporting event in this worsening environment is unwise.
No matter how often we hear that TPC Scottsdale enables social distancing — 192 acres, the organizers have been reminding us — the reality is that spectators will always congregate in more confined areas. Only fans who have passed out remain on the front nine while the leaders battle on the closing holes.
The desire for normalcy is understandable, as is the eagerness of the WMPO to generate some revenue in this gloomy economy. But for now, normal needs to end at simply staging a tournament, limiting the viewing experience to screens and not spectators. The WMPO should take one for the Tour and accept the same sacrifice so many other events have had to make over these last 10 months. And if the organizers don’t want to make the right call, then the PGA Tour should exercise its prerogative and make it for them.
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