No fans allowed as Matsuyama matches course record

Hideki Matsuyama hits a shot during the first round of The Players Championship on March 12. (AP pic)

MIAMI: Hideki Matsuyama’s sparkling 63 was just a secondary story Thursday as the US PGA Tour banned fans at the Players Championship and beyond due to coronavirus concerns.

The tour made the announcement during the first round of the Players, its signature event at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Fans who turned out for the first day were allowed to stay, but there will be no galleries for the remainder of the tournament, and no spectators at next week’s Valspar Championship, the WGC Match-Play in Austin and the Texas Open in San Antonio.

The Texas Open concludes on April 5, eve of the first practice round at Augusta National for the Masters – 2020’s first men’s Major.

Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said he spoke with US President Donald Trump regarding the tour’s future plans as well as Florida state officials.

A PGA event planned for the Dominican Republic in two weeks opposite the WGC Match Play was postponed, with Monahan saying the tour planned to reschedule the Caribbean stop.

“The health and safety of our players, employees, partners, volunteers, fans and everybody associated with the PGA Tour is our top priority,” Monahan said.

“It’s going to be very different. I think it will be an eerie situation to be out here with no one else out here,” said South African-born Slovakian Rory Sabbatini, among the early finishers in the first round of the Players.

“It’s going to be awkward.”

Sabbatini was sorry for fans who had been looking forward to seeing golf’s greatest shotmakers but understood the decision had to be made for safety’s sake.

“I feel pain for the spectators,” he said.

“I know no actions are taken lightly. A lot of contemplation went into this. It’s unfortunate.

“I hope we can get this under control and get everybody back out there.

“It just makes you realise how interconnected the entire planet is these days. It makes you realise in the global picture how really small we are.”

Taiwan’s C T Pan withdrew from the Players on Thursday.

He tweeted a dig at the event’s coronavirus prevention measures that he later deleted.

He confirmed he pulled out because of his concerns over the virus.

“I chose to withdraw from the Players Championship because my wife and I want to protect ourselves from the risk of exposure to the coronavirus,” Pan tweeted.

“We are fine and our families are fine.

“Our lifestyle is like a circus, travelling from one place to another. We believe this is a time to exercise caution by not playing this week.”

Matsuyama takes lead

Matsuyama sank a 25-foot eagle putt on the ninth hole, the final hole he played, to become the ninth player to grab a share of the TPC Sawgrass course record.

The Japanese star also made eight birdies against a lone bogey when he found the water at 16.

“I didn’t have the greatest warm-up this morning, but once play started I got into it, I got into a good groove,” Matsuyama said.

“I’ve been working hard and have a lot of confidence now in my swing. Today I made some putts and that seems to be the difference of late. That was really the catapult to me to have a good round.”

Matsuyama had a two-shot lead over South Korean Kim Si-woo, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Harris English.

It was a further two strokes back to Australian Marc Leishman and Patrick Cantlay on 67.

Defending champion Rory McIlroy carded an even par 72.

Golfers teed off Thursday with fans in the gallery kept at a distance and banned from seeking autographs.

“We are tracking and monitoring the health information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization in addition to the travel advisories provided by the US State Department,” Monahan said.

“Both the White House and the Governor’s office have been and are supportive of the precautionary measures we have taken to this point.”