When most of the professional sports world goes on hiatus, there are significant losses. There are potential financial burdens, both for the players and those who rely on them for their own business, and the entertainment they provide is dearly missed. Some of us have so deeply tuned our lives around sports to the point at which the earth doesn’t quite feel right at this moment. It’s a trivial wound compared to the health of a human being, but for many of us it’s an unprecedented challenge.
The only comfort for players and fans alike is the hope that things will, one day, revert to normal.
Not everyone in the amateur golf community has that luxury.
When the NCAA announced it was canceling all remaining winter and spring athletics due to the spread of coronavirus, hundreds of players across all divisions of men’s and women’s collegiate golf effectively had hit their last shots representing their respective universities. The NCAA plans to offer an extra year of eligibility to those affected, but it stands to reason that many graduating seniors have plans either to turn professional or start another career entirely. On the other end, graduating high school seniors will be joining college programs, and rosters figure to be fundamentally changed from how they were anticipated to look before the outbreak.
If you’ve ever played collegiate sports, you know that each season is a unique makeup of the friends with whom you form lifetime bonds – it’s a shame for the young men and women who had the current version of their squads taken away in such stunning fashion.
“It has been a devastating day for many, including our three awesome seniors (Chun An Yu, Blake Wagoner, and Alex Del Rey) who give all they have each day, over years, to be ready to compete for a championship with their teammates,” tweeted Arizona State men’s golf coach Matt Thurmond. “Today their last chance to do it was taken away.”
Dave Pezzino, the men’s golf coach at the University of Connecticut, wrote a Facebook post that put the whole situation into heartbreaking but understandable context.
“I didn’t know it would be my last walk this year with my other sons,” Pezzino wrote. “As a team they took this seriously and were organized to do whatever was needed of them. … I get it, COVID-19 is not something to mess around with. My guys weren’t concerned with getting sick, it was getting their loved ones sick that they were concerned about and that’s why I love these guys.”
As one would expect in an emotional situation, some reactions were centered around the frustration of the NCAA announcing such substantial plans in mid-March and not offering any room for alterations down the road.
“Just hoping the NCAA changes their minds,” recent Jones Cup winner and University of Georgia player Davis Thompson wrote in an Instagram post. “Don’t want the seniors to go out like this.”
Chris Malloy, the head coach at Ole Miss, perhaps offered the most optimism and humor among a vocal crowd that hoped the season could still be saved despite the announcement.
“I’m not ready to give up hope on this season juuuuuussst yet,” Malloy tweeted. “Praying that cooler heads prevail and we reevaluate this thing in a few weeks.”
A couple of days later, Malloy quipped: “Two days ago I was a college coach preparing my team for a post-season run. Today I was a landscape architect at my house. My how things change. For the record, I’m better at coaching golf.”
It won’t quite be the same, but the Golf Coaches Association of America announced that it will hand out its annual season-long awards. The All-America teams, Jack Nicklaus Award for the top golfer in each division, Phil Mickelson Outstanding Freshman Award and Byron Nelson Award for seniors all will be given. The same goes for the Ben Hogan Award, given to the top college player.
Outside of college golf, some play has continued. Jackson Van Paris, a 16-year-old from Pinehurst, N.C., won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley under bizarre conditions. Rather than follow the lead of the PGA Tour and others, tournament officials decided to play 27 holes on Friday and nine holes on Saturday, with only players, parents and essential personnel allowed in the gates. No players were tested for coronavirus, although they were screened.
A victorious Van Paris was seen in a gold jacket being held horizontally by a handful of other competitors who scrunched together for a photo. It was a nice moment and the biggest tournament win of his young junior career, but it underscored the fear that if any of those players were infected – they also stayed together, a dozen players to a cabin on site – that conducting such an event wouldn’t seem to make rational sense.
Those healthy young men could probably fight off the virus without too much trouble, but what if they hug their grandparents and give it to them?
What amateur events occur next will be an evolving question. The Azalea Invitational at the Country Club of Charleston, which was scheduled to take place the last weekend of March, has been postponed. The tournament doesn’t have to worry about large galleries, but officials cited a diverse field and the dangers of traveling as reason enough to not move forward with the event under the current conditions.
“We will be looking into alternative dates and will be back in touch with everyone as soon as possible,” the tournament posted on its website. “Look for our communication soon. Until then, keep washing those hands.”
The Terra Cotta Invitational originally was slated for mid-April and may have to find another date. On the mid-amateur calendar, organizers of the prestigious Coleman Invitational at Seminole Golf Club cancelled this year’s event, which means the tournament will be going on a two-year hiatus – preparations for the 2021 Walker Cup already have shelved next year’s Coleman.
With golf being an outdoor activity, the possibility of holding certain events is not completely off the table, although the feasibility of staging tournaments is seemingly decreasing by the day. The American Junior Golf Association, which initially wrote on its website that it plans to conduct its spring and summer tournament schedule as posted and is “strengthening normal health and safety protocols to ensure greater protections are in place for all stakeholders at our events,” was expected to announce Monday that the spring season is cancelled. The AJGA had expected to stage 120 tournaments this year.
The USGA’s championship schedule does not begin until the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Fla., which is scheduled for April 25-29. The next championship after that is the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball on May 23-27 at Philadelphia (Pa.) Cricket Club.
Quail Creek originally was supposed to hold the 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur but lost that opportunity after Hurricane Irma flooded the facility.
“As of today, we have not made any decisions to alter this schedule,” USGA chief executive officer Mike Davis said in a statement. “We are committed to being proactive in updating our constituents regarding any changes and will provide more information as it becomes available. We will take action in the event there are direct impacts to our people or our championships, including our qualifiers.”
To say the least, it’s bitterly disappointing for seasons and major amateur events to be cancelled or postponed. The hope is that being proactive now will allow everyone to start playing worry-free competitive golf as soon as possible.
And when that day comes, there will no doubt be an extra layer of appreciation from all involved.
Top: Florida Tech's Megan Dennis celebrates with coach Chris Saltmarsh on the 18th hole during the 2019 NCAA Division II Women's Golf Championship.