Days away from hosting the Valspar Championship, tournament officials absorbed the sad news that their event was off for 2020 and braced for the impact it would have on the event and the community.
Before starting the process of breaking down the grandstands and infrastructure at the Valspar Championship, tournament officials snapped photos of the veritable ghost town. It was a bit of a funereal gesture, or perhaps something like a routine investigative measure at the scene of a crime. All that was missing was the chalk outline.
The setting on a sun-splashed Friday morning in Palm Harbour, Florida, was not unlike pre-tournament days in previous years, except that any activity at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort was contributing to the promise of something meaningful about to happen. Anticipation would be swirling in the warm air. Professional golfers and their caddies soon would arrive. Volunteers and sponsor representatives would be preparing as well. Spectators – upwards of 120,000 or more for the week – would start to gather. And drink. And eat. And maybe drink a little more. And connect with friends. And soak in the sun and the golf and the soothing pastoral atmosphere common to a PGA Tour event.
The exacting sylvan golf course, a favourite among many tour players, looked pristine. But it was no longer needed. Not this week, not for its intended purpose.
“Everyone was taking an hour to be sad, and then we got to work because when you put it in perspective, this was the right decision,” said Tracy West, tournament director of the Valspar Championship, one of several tournaments that was canceled due to the growing threat of the COVID-19 virus that has spread to 135 countries.
But first, the photos [see above], lasting evidence of a year’s worth of work that was meant to manifest in entertainment for the community (and for an international television viewership numbering in the millions), an economic windfall for the area and charitable donations in the millions to a variety of worthy causes in the greater Tampa Bay area.
West and her team learned late last Thursday that the Valspar Championship, along with the next two events on the PGA Tour schedule, the WGC–Dell Match Play and the Valero Texas Open, were being cancelled. That decision by tour commissioner Jay Monahan coincided with the cancellation of the Players Championship after one round. Events on other PGA Tour-affiliated circuits also were scrapped.
Similarly, the LPGA, which already had cancelled three events in Asia, postponed three more, including its first Major of the year, the ANA Inspiration. The European Tour decided to go dark at least until May. And then Augusta National Golf Club made its decision on Friday, postponing the Masters.
‘This was going to be our most successful tournament ever… We had a lot of new fan gathering areas built and the greatest number of chalets. It’s really sad that no one is going to see it.’ – Valspar tournament director Tracy West
Monahan, after nearly around-the-clock monitoring of the coronavirus emergency, had no choice but to reconsider the decision he previously announced at about noon on Thursday, in which he said the Players, the tour’s flagship event in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, would continue without fans and do the same for succeeding events leading into the Masters. (Although he cancelled the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic due to international travel considerations.)
“When you think about the DNA of this organisation,” a sleep-deprived Monahan, looking wan, said in a Friday morning press conference, “think about the livelihoods that have been affected. The livelihoods of our players, the livelihoods of our employees, the livelihoods of the charities, and the economic impact we have in all the markets we play. You think about all the vendors, all the service organisations that support these tournaments, we’ve affected a lot of lives.”
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With its $US6.9 million purse, the tournament was expecting a fairly strong field led by Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson, Americans ranked third, fourth and fifth in the world, respectively, and also including past champions Jim Furyk, Paul Casey (the winner the past two years), Luke Donald and current US Open champion Gary Woodland.
The weather forecast looked favourable, with highs in the 30s every day and the chance of rain minimal. It was sizing up to be a splendid week.
By 8am on Friday, the 13th, as it were, workers already were tearing things down, a process that would take a week – essentially, what would have been tournament week. It hurt, even if everyone knew that the right decision had been made.
“In the end, this is a golf tournament,” West said. “We understand there are bigger things going on, things we need to consider for the welfare of everyone’s safety and health. We know that lives are being impacted everywhere – the economy and industries and things we kind of take for granted. As much as we are personally saddened by this, everyone associated with the tournament and the community at large gets the big picture.”
The tournament annually draws 120,000 or more spectators a year, some of whom are guests of Sherwin-Williams, the parent company of Valspar, or one of the other 180 sponsors of the event. Even if only half of that figure purchased daily tickets, which average $US49, the tournament stood to make nearly $US3 million from ticket sales (and the half estimate is likely low). Throw in parking, concessions and merchandise, and the loss easily reaches eight figures.
Copperhead Charities, which operates the tournament, has raised $US43 million since first hosting a professional mixed team event in 1977. Last year, the Valspar Championship raised $US2.2 million for charitable organisations, including Tampa General Hospital, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County, The First Tee, the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation and Birdies for the Brave.
In the moment, it’s unclear what the financial impact in total of cancelling the tournament will mean to Copperhead Charities or to Valspar, which is signed on as title sponsor through 2025. Jim Jaye, executive vice-president for Sherwin-Williams, issued this statement via e-mail when contacted for comment:
“While we’re disappointed by the cancellation of this year’s Valspar Championship, we completely support the PGA’s decision. The safety and health of all those connected to the tournament is our highest priority, including the players, support staff, our employees, our customers and our suppliers. In light of the current unprecedented circumstances, we believe the PGA’s course of action is a prudent one.
“We’re working together with all our tournament partners on the financial ramifications of the cancellation. I’m confident we’ll work through those details in the coming days in a way that is equitable for everyone involved. We look forward to a productive event in 2021.”
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Being the tournament immediately after the Players, the Valspar Championship was left in an awkward position when the plug was pulled, with just three days left until the start of tournament week. West had been preparing for the worst, but still held out hope that the event would move forward, especially after the Players commenced with the opening round.
She didn’t get much sleep Thursday night and met with her staff at 7am on Friday to review their new mission while trying to not get too emotional about it. Which wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s certainly devastating for everyone involved,” West said. “Not a lot of people understand that many thousands of people work on these tournaments and spend all year planning these things. And now we have so many new challenges. We have to figure out where we are financially. We have to figure out a lot of things. It’s a work in progress.”
In the short run, West has to decide what to do with an inventory of merchandise. There are pro-am gifts and courtesy cars to take care of. Tickets have to be refunded. Vendors and operations workers have to be paid – though, thankfully, the delivery of food stocks was halted in time because of the tour’s earlier decision to proceed with tournaments without spectators.
Obviously, a lot changed in a day. And it wiped out a year’s worth of preparations.
“You never make the wrong decision, erring on the side of caution,” West said. “But there is naturally going to be a period of disappointment. This was going to be our most successful tournament ever. We had our biggest build out and our greatest number of sponsors. Valspar planned for some really neat activations. We had a lot of new fan gathering areas built and the greatest number of chalets. It’s really sad that no one is going to see it.
“We will move forward,” West added. “Everyone is committed to making this tournament even more successful in 2021. But today, gosh, this is a tough day. I look outside, and it’s beautiful out, and I think about how sad this day is when we had such a great week ahead of us.”
It was a tough day, and it was a sad one, too. Friday usually is cut day on the tour. This was the toughest, saddest cut golf has seen in a while.