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

©The Mercury News

SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of thousands of golf fans were watching Thursday, but not one of them was on the course at TPC Harding Park.

The first round of the PGA Championship, one of golf’s four major tournaments, typically would bring throngs of fans to the course. They would be stacked 10-deep, maybe 20-deep, alongside the fairway ropes that separate the golfers from the gallery.

But these aren’t typical times. In the era of COVID-19, the only people at the tournament, let alone on the course, was a smattering of media and volunteers and the requisite entourage that travels with every big tournament.

For everyone else, it was TV or nothing.

It was cool to be inside the bubble, to watch these professionals dominate the same course I attempt to break 100 at a few times a year.

It was also profoundly eerie. So on behalf of the players, staff, and media, may I just say: we miss you, fans.

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. Woods is arguably the best golfer to ever live — a player whose pull is larger than the sport itself.

Over the years covering a tournament or two, I’ve spent enough time trailing Woods to know that there’s always a sea of people — thousands of adoring fans — that follows him from the driving range to the practice green all the way through his round. Add two other big names, such as McIlroy and Thomas, and it would be a madhouse.

Thursday, it was me and a few other people.

There was so little going on, I had a moment with Max Homa, who joined the tour in 2013 after playing for Cal and winning the NCAA tournament. Homa had hit into the rough off the first tee. I saw his ball up close on my way to the second tee. It was in a tough spot. So when he saved par, I personally acknowledged his impressive recovery shot.

Did I break golf (and media) protocol? Maybe. What could I do? He was standing right there and it was a nice shot.

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 TV 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 broke his driver when he leaned on it with the additional 40 pounds he deliberately put on during the hiatus to pick up his tee. 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. “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.”

Even the golfers were subdued. Outside of a few exclamations after bad strikes, there wasn’t much chatter. Most golfers were using their “indoor voices” as if we weren’t outside.

“Well, that’s our new norm,” said Tiger Woods, who shot a two-under-par 68. “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.”

The atmosphere was so dreary that the PGA encouraged volunteers to clap after a nice shot to create some sort of energy, but there were times when those volunteers clearly forgot about the directive.

There was one place on the course where fans could get a peek without ESPN. On the fence along the 12th hole, with a few well-placed cuts in the covering, a handful of fans could observe the tee shots.

For now, it will have to do.

———

©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)