By Sean Fairholm
Four days before tournament week at the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship was set to begin, tournament officials learned they would be proceeding without spectators. About 10 hours later, they were told there would not be a competition at all.
The sudden cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic made for a particularly surreal scene in Palm Harbor, Fla., last week, when the tournament was supposed to have been played. The grandstands that had been erected for fans to watch the likes of Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson battle Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course instead were dismantled as recreational players took advantage of a generous impromptu package the resort put together for those hoping to get on a PGA Tour-ready layout.
It all happened so quickly. Tournament director Tracy West said that thoughts of the coronavirus affecting the event came onto officials’ radar screen only about a week before the tournament, when it became apparent that additional sanitation measures would be needed.
A few days after those conversations began, as the Players Championship was set to commence in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., discussions about the fate of the Players and subsequent events intensified. At noon on Thursday, after Players competitors had teed off in the first round and the PGA Tour announced there would be no spectators starting Friday at TPC Sawgrass – and at the tour’s next three tournaments – West scrambled to cancel buses, adjust vendor orders and continue putting the finishing touches on preparation for the Valspar Championship.
But then it was all gone.
“We gave ourselves about five minutes of mourning after we first heard it was over,” West said. “The thought throughout the day was that we could still have the competition without fans and provide something that was fun to watch on TV and give some ray of light in all of this. We were in full support of it.
“But once Disney announced they were shutting down, that was really the official tipping point of saying, ‘OK, we just can’t do this.’ ”
“We aren’t feeling sorry for ourselves. Not one iota. Does it take more than a thousand people to put on a tournament, working all throughout the year? Yes, but what we are going through here is nothing in comparison to other industries.”
To be clear, there are far more pressing matters in the world as COVID-19 continues to spread with harrowing speed throughout the United States and nearly 200 other countries. The thought of a golf tournament being cancelled – the Valspar Championship is one of eight PGA Tour events that have been cancelled to date as a result of the virus, while two majors, the Masters and PGA Championship, have been postponed – is trivial compared to the health concerns of millions of people.
As West put it, “We aren’t feeling sorry for ourselves. Not one iota. Does it take more than a thousand people to put on a tournament, working all throughout the year? Yes, but what we are going through here is nothing in comparison to other industries.”
Even so, PGA Tour events have substantial value to their host communities. After the Valspar Championship was cancelled, West and her team began climbing a mountain of tying loose ends, many the average golf fan probably wouldn’t consider.
So what is the fallout when an event like the Valspar Championship is suddenly cancelled?
The disassembling of the grandstands, a process that lasts about two and a half to three weeks, started a week earlier than expected. Then there are unexpected tasks like shipping tee gifts to amateurs who were supposed to play in the pro-am and keeping the volunteer headquarters open for those who would like to pick up their uniforms. Ticket-holders have mostly been refunded. Vendors have to be paid, even though no tournament happened. West has to decide what to do with the inventory of tournament merchandise.
Poignantly, on Friday the 13th, the day the cancellation was announced, tournament officials took pictures throughout the Innisbrook property as a sort of post-mortem that will be used to spearhead future planning efforts.
One of the toughest conversations came when the team of eight interns was told they wouldn’t get to experience tournament week. To show their enthusiasm didn’t die with the event, they still came to work last week sporting coordinated uniforms with a different color each day.
“It’s going to take a month, maybe two months to sort all of this out,” West said, noting that she had 300 unread e-mails in her inbox two days following the cancellation.
The biggest fallout, however, likely will be the impact on the tournament’s charity component. Birdies for Charity, the multi-level fundraising arm of the event that funnels money to more than 30 local organizations, collects pledges from individuals and corporations based on how many birdies are made in the tournament.
Last year, the effort raised more than $2.2 million. The number this year still will be significant – around $800,000 has been collected already through one-time gifts that weren’t dependent on birdies being made – but likely won’t come close to the 2019 figure.
The tournament was forecasting $3 million in gate revenue, and that loss will be compounded without concessions and merchandise sales.
Despite the gloom these figures suggest, there remain reasons for optimism. The 2018 Valspar Championship broke attendance records with Tiger Woods in the field, and last year’s event scored a 322 in strength of field, a number that ranked it ahead of the Scottish Open, Honda Classic, 3M Open, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and other tournaments, according to the Official World Golf Ranking.
Valspar is locked in as the tournament’s title sponsor through 2025, providing stability. And this year’s event boasted the highest level of sponsor support in tournament history, West said. Upward of 120,000 spectators were expected to attend, suggesting the event has gained strong traction in the community.
Next year’s tournament is slated for late April, and it remains to be seen how that will impact the event. The Honda Classic will move into the Valspar Championship’s March date, creating a new look to next year’s schedule.
“We’re very bullish we’re going to be back better than ever,” West said. “And we’re hoping there’s a lot of pent-up demand from those in the Tampa area wanting to see golf.”
This is the second time the Valspar Championship has been canceled after a major world crisis. The tragic events of Sept. 11 coincided with its 2001 tournament week, prior to its move to the spring.
Several staff members remain from back then, including media coordinator Rick Odioso. He remembers standing with NBC announcer Gary Koch and watching the World Trade Center towers come down on a TV just outside the media center.
“Just like with this year, we went through the same stages,” Odioso said. “Back then, we were trying to add security and come up with different plans to play, but it was still canceled within 24 hours.”
Others on staff also have been through times when events did not take place. West used to run a PGA Tour Champions event that was flooded a week earlier and could not be conducted. The current Valspar Championship operations director, Zach Labbe, did contract work for the Greenbrier Classic the year flooding wiped out that event.
It’s not a fun part of working in the events industry, but sometimes a year’s worth of work is unexpectedly rendered moot at the last minute. It’s a reality with which officials at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the Valero Texas Open and other tournaments are also grappling.
It’s just a golf tournament, but it still hurts.