COLUMBUS — When the Memorial Tournament tees off July 16, the PGA Tour players will face less pressure to perform than tournament director Dan Sullivan and his team of organizers will.
Welcoming spectators onto the grounds of Muirfield Village Golf Club for the July 16-19 tournament carries risk. Not just for fans, who will be the first to attend a tour event since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the Players Championship after the first round on March 12.
Not just for tour pros, who will have had no interaction with fans over the past five tournaments. (Load up on hand sanitizer, boys.)
But the Memorial’s reputation also is at risk, especially among those who question why fans will be allowed in when other tournaments, both before and after, are keeping them out.
Which of these tour events does not belong with the others:
A. Colonial: No fans
B. RBC Heritage: No fans
C. Travelers: No fans
D. Rocket Mortgage: No fans
E. Workday Charity Open: No fans
F. Memorial: Fans
G. 3M: No fans
H. PGA Championship: No fans.
The WGC-FedEx and Barracuda Classic could have fans in late July/early August, but spectator status remains unclear, making the Memorial the only event until at least mid-August guaranteed to have boots and flip-flops on the ground.
With that comes both opportunity and gamble. Or as Sullivan puts it: “Pressure and responsibility.”
“Everyone is going to be watching,” Sullivan said this week. “We’re going to have a bunch of people coming here to pay attention to how we manage crowds getting around a golf course. Everyone on air is going to be talking about it. Everyone in print is going to be talking about it. And if we don’t do it right we can’t be 100% right but if we don’t do it right and have the right process in place then it may ruin it for others.”
Obviously, Sullivan sees it as a risk worth taking. Or at least Jack Nicklaus does. After all, the Memorial is Jack’s baby. Having grown up in Upper Arlington before moving to south Florida almost 50 years ago, the Golden Bear still has affection for Columbus, and undoubtedly wants to gift Ohio’s golf fans with actual in-person viewing. And the tour smartly likes to respect Jack’s wishes.
As a player, Nicklaus was not a big risk-taker. He and Tiger Woods rank 1-2 (or 2-1, if you prefer to get tossed out of Columbus) in thinking their way around 18 holes.
But Jack as tournament host is a different animal. Conducting the Memorial with spectators in the midst of a pandemic is like going for a 575-yard par-5 in two with a pond fronting the green. It can be done, but you better execute the shot perfectly.
Sullivan already noted that perfection is not possible, so he’s going to need a lucky bounce or two to pull things off without getting penalized too severely. In his favor, he will get some practice the week before the Memorial when Muirfield Village hosts the Workday Charity Open, which was a late add to the tour schedule as a replacement for the canceled John Deere Classic, which was to be held July 9-12 in Silvis, Illinois.
But Workday won’t have spectators, so what Sullivan can glean from it will be limited to testing and processing the “competition bubble” of about 450 players, caddies and tour personnel on site.
More on the Workday one-time event, which is expected to move to San Francisco next year: 156 players will compete for a purse of $6.2 million in what Sullivan described as a “strong Korn Ferry event.” In other words, few big names outside the potential for a marquee players such as Phil Mickelson and/or Brandt Snedeker, who have endorsement deals with Workday. (Aside: Workday is contributing $1 million to Nationwide Children’s Hospital and also must pay a site fee to Muirfield Village; John Deere reportedly also is chipping in some money.)
Sullivan stressed that the Memorial very much is the main event, but that doesn’t mean it will resemble the previous 44.
“None of us have ever experienced this. We have no clue what is going to happen, but it will be presumably less energy and very controlled,” Sullivan said.
Spectators must wear masks upon entry and will be reminded once inside the gates that masks should be removed only around family. Attendance will be limited to about 8,000 (tickets are sold out but a waiting list exists; call the course at 614-889-6700), but the maximum on each hole ranges from about 200 at No. 11 to 1,500 at No. 18. So pick a hole and get there early.
“Think Sunday afternoon, about what happens (with huge crowds) around 18. It can’t happen this year,” Sullivan said.