Kurtenbach: Harding Park’s PGA Championship makes it clear — fans can’t come back soon enough

SAN FRANCISCO —  On behalf of the players, the sponsors, and myself: We miss you fans.

The first round of the 2020 PGA Championship was held Thursday at TPC Harding Park with no counted attendance, a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally a major championship like this would bring out crowds that stack 10, 20-people deep along the ropes that line the course, separating golfers from the gallery. But Thursday, the only people who were allowed at San Francisco’s municipal gem were a small spattering of media and volunteers, and the requisite entourage that travels with every big tournament.

Yes, it was unfathomably cool to be inside “the bubble”, to see these guys — who are so much better than me at this sport I might as well quit out of shame — dominate the same course I attempt to break 100 at a few times a year.

It was also a profoundly eerie experience.

(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

I followed the big-ticket threesome of Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods for six holes Thursday.

Those are three of the greatest golfers in the world — the elite of the elite. Woods is arguably the best golfer to ever live — a player whose pull is larger than the sport itself.

And I’ve spent enough time in this media game to know that there’s always a sea of people — thousands of adoring fans — that follow Woods from the driving range to the practice green all the way through his round. Add in two other big names to the playing group and you’d have a tsunami of activity.

But Thursday, it was me and a few other people. It all felt off. It took away from the magnitude of the tournament.

“Well, that’s our new norm,” Woods, who shot a two-under-par 68, said. “It’s just the way it is. This is [how it’s] going to be for a while.”

“The energy is different. You’re not going to have as many distractions out there, as well. There’s really no one moving around. You don’t hear the crowd noises. It’s just different. That’s probably the only way to say it.”

There was so little action around the course that I almost kicked Max Homa’s ball, which he pulled into the rough off the first tee a moment before I reached the No. 2 tee box. Luckily, I avoided making his bad situation worse, but I let Homa, who finished the round with a four-over-par 70, know that his recovery shot — which set him up for a nice par save — was impressive. What could I do? He was right there.

Otherwise, it was so quiet.

(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

The sometimes rowdy public course turned into a super-exclusive private club Thursday. And following that biggest threesome of the day, in the middle of the 163-acre course, during the first major of the year, I was able to hear traffic from Lake Merced and Skyline Boulevards.

Instead of roars for a leaderboard change or a big birdie putt, the soundtrack of the first round was the echoing ping of drivers, the clatter of spikes against concrete, gas generators powering the cameras, and the public address announcers telling no one in particular who was starting their rounds and their hometowns.

We didn’t even get a heckle when Bryson DeChambeau, who deliberately put on 40 pounds during golf’s hiatus, broke his driver on No. 7 after leaning on it to pick up his tee. Oh, what I would have paid to hear what a paying customer, a few Michelob Ultras deep, would have said about that.

“I actually miss playing in front of fans because you obviously work off that, especially in a major championship,” Jason Day said after his five-under-par round, which made him the leader in the clubhouse Thursday. “You work off that energy. Usually, it’s buzzing, and it happens from Monday all the way through to Sunday… And today, we’re used to it by now, but it’s still not the same. I know that we are playing the PGA Championship. It’s a major championship. It’s the first one of the year. It’s still just not the same.”

“You can definitely feel the difference in intensity… it just doesn’t feel right.”

 (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Even the golfers were subdued. The PGA Championship is a big tournament, so players were going to be a bit more locked in on the course, and outside of a few exclamations after bad strikes, there wasn’t much chatter. Most golfers were using their “indoor voices” to talk — as if we weren’t outside. Heaven forbid anyone who was around them overhearing something interesting.

The PGA encouraged volunteers to clap after a nice shot to create some atmosphere, but the church-like environment at the church of golf was so subdued that there were periods of time where those volunteers clearly forgot about the directive.

There was one place where some fans could grab a peek at these great golfers and cheer them on: the fence along the 12th hole. With a few well-placed cuts on the blue netting, a handful of fans could observe some tee shots and let the golfers know what they thought.

For now, it will have to do. At least the tournament is being played.

But I can’t wait until we can do this again — a big tournament at a great course, with hopefully a repeat of Thursday’s suprisingly great weather — the right way. And that means that fans can join us for the festivities.

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