PONTE VEDRA, Fla. (Reuters) - The PGA Tour on Thursday banned spectators from attending tournaments through April 5, starting with Friday’s second round of the Players Championship, because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
The announcement was made by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan at TPC Sawgrass, where fans were already in place midway through the opening round of what is widely regarded as golf’s unofficial fifth major.
The PGA Tour had been criticised for pushing on with the Players opening around after a flood of leagues and other sporting events across North America announced cancellations and postponements.
Monahan said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday and that the White House was supportive of the precautionary measures the PGA Tour has taken.
“At this point in time, PGA Tour events – across all tours – will currently proceed as scheduled, but will do so without fans,” said Monahan, adding that the policy cold still change.
“This is a difficult situation, one with consequences that impact our players, fans and the communities in which we play.”
Earlier on Thursday, the PGA Tour said that, given the information available, the Players Championship would continue as scheduled but added it was a “very fluid situation that requires constant review”.
At TPC Sawgrass, where the first group of golfers teed off at 7:40 a.m. ET (1240 GMT), signs were posted indicating that an autograph ban was in place.
The ban on spectators ends just before the April 9-12 Masters at Augusta National where the year’s first major is due to be played.
Last week, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said the Masters will proceed as scheduled and precautions will be established to ensure the safety of everyone following the coronavirus outbreak.
Augusta National did not immediately respond when asked by Reuters if it still expects to allow patrons at this year’s Masters.
The spectator ban also impacts the March 19-22 Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, the March 25-29 World Golf Championships-Match Play event in Austin and April 2-5 Valero Texas Open in San Antonio.
Monahan also said the March 26-29 event in Punta Cana has been postponed because of travel advisories and potential logistical issues associated with players and staff travelling internationally.
Pressure increased on the PGA Tour to fall in line with other sports when the Miami Open, one of the biggest and most prestigious tennis tournaments, was cancelled by Dade County earlier on Thursday.
A few hours later Major League Soccer announced it was suspending match play for 30 days to assess the impact of the outbreak.
What began as trickle of cancellations turned into a flood on Wednesday with the NBA announcing it was suspending its regular season and the NCAA, the governing body of college sports, saying “March Madness” basketball tournaments would be played without fans.
The PGA Tour said it decided against cancelling events completely because of how golf tournaments are set up and operated.
“If you look at our venues, obviously we’re an outdoor sport, we’re not in a stadium, and here this week at TPC Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres,” Monahan told a packed news conference.
“You’ve got 144 players here and over the course of a round our players generally do socially distance themselves.
“There are other circumstances that led to the decisions that those leagues made that are unique to those leagues that we’re not currently faced with.”
Reporting by Steve Keating; Writing by Frank Pingue; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond