LPGA commissioner Mike Whan had just landed in Australia the first week of February for his tour’s first of five consecutive scheduled Pacific swing events of the 2020 season when he was asked by someone from the IMG China office if he had heard of the coronavirus. “No,” he said, and shortly thereafter he began Googling the term.
One week later, there were discussions that would lead to the cancellation of the three upcoming LPGA events in Asia. On the news, there were reports of passengers on cruise ships contracting the virus and being quarantined at sea.
“If you remember that first cruise-ship positive was international news,” Whan said. “They couldn’t dock, couldn’t get people off. I envisioned us turning on CNN International and seeing a picture of our hotel with someone saying, ‘The LPGA has been locked in here for 21 days.’ ”
In the United States, the virus still seemed half a world away.
Mike Davis doesn’t remember the first time he heard about the coronavirus, which doesn’t make him different from any of his contemporaries. He had a USGA annual meeting to prepare for, a championship season looming and a long-term plan to announce his retirement late in the year.
“Maybe I was just completely naïve, I had no idea it would do what it’s done to people’s lives, to people’s businesses,” Davis recalled.
Monahan read about the coronavirus while flying to Hawaii for the first event of the calendar year, the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January. It could be an issue down the road, Monahan thought.
Waugh remembered the impact of the avian flu from his time as an international banking executive as he watched news reports from China.
“You realize that with globalization … we export all these things,” Waugh said. “I started thinking, ‘Oh God, I wonder if that’s going to get to us at some point.’ ”
Whan and the LPGA Tour were like canaries in a coal mine.
“If you remember, when the PGA Tour and the NBA and Major League Baseball all got to that decision was when the virus was in your backyard,” Whan said. “We made the same decision when the virus was in our backyard, but our backyard was Singapore, Thailand and China.
“But I’ve got to tell you, when we made those decisions, the number of calls, e-mails and texts I got from people saying, ‘What are you doing?’ it was not an insignificant number. There were times when I questioned myself. But at the end of the day, I knew that I could live with canceling events and being wrong by being overly cautious. I couldn’t live with myself if we went ahead and played those events and we were wrong, and somebody got the virus and we were all quarantined. That was where I landed.
“We didn’t see anything that nobody else saw. We were just near the source (of the virus) at the time. You look back on it and you say, ‘Yeah, of course you had to cancel.’ That wasn’t just the right call, it was the only call. I wish it had been that easy at the time. Trust me, it wasn’t.”
The second week of February, Monahan was in Pebble Beach, California, for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where much of the PGA Tour’s leadership had gathered along with various CEOs from major corporations playing in the event.
“Of all the conversations I had I didn’t have any conversations about the coronavirus,” Monahan said. “In retrospect that’s pretty remarkable that a little more than 30 days later it fundamentally changed the way everybody operates.”
On Feb. 13, the PGA Tour’s crisis screening team met to discuss the coronavirus and its potential impact on the Players Championship. The group was keeping an eye on the virus because it had forced the tour’s office in China to close.
On Feb. 28, the tour’s executive crisis management team had a meeting about the coronavirus during which they worked through an exercise related to its potential impact on the PGA Tour as the group does for other contingencies on a regular basis.
“Obviously it was in a different scenario down the road, not for the week of the Players,” Monahan said.
Masters chairman Fred Ridley sent a memo to the media on March 4 saying Augusta National was “not only monitoring the situation closely, but also consulting with relevant experts.” But at the time it was proceeding as scheduled for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals and the Masters in April.
The virus had come into focus for Slumbers in February because the R&A had issued a ban on non-essential travel to China as the outbreak intensified there. By Feb. 24, the Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific Championship in Thailand was canceled.
On March 6, Slumbers suggested to David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of rules and equipment standards, that the organization begin sending internal memos to staffers.
“This is going to last a long time so I think we need to issue short bulletins, often,” Slumbers told Rickman, never imagining the volume of memos that would be written.
Pelley was in the player lounge in Qatar in the first week of March when the discussion turned to COVID-19. Tournaments in Kenya and India were on the schedule and Pelley had no reason to think they would not be played as scheduled.
Until they weren’t.
“On Saturday I pulled all the players in and they were all asking me the question: ‘What is happening with Kenya next week?’ ” Pelley recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, Kenya is going to happen next week and at this particular time it looks like India is moving forward.’ They said, ‘Great.’
“Saturday night I had a call in my hotel room and I got on the phone with our friends from Kenya. That was canceled. On Sunday I went back in the player lounge, pulled them all together and said, ‘So remember what I said yesterday about Kenya? That wasn’t correct.’ I said, ‘That’s canceled.’ And then they said, ‘Well, what do you think about India?’ I said it didn’t matter what I think because I thought yesterday Kenya was happening 100 percent.
“That was when it hit me and I went, ‘Oh, my word. We are entering into something that is completely different.’ ”
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