A year later, caddies, players reflect on 2020 Players Championship cancellation

We talked to players and caddies to look back at March 2020 when the start of the COVID pandemic in the U.S. put an abrupt halt to The Players Championship and postponed golf until the Colonial in June. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The last time players and caddies gathered for the Players Championship last March, pro golf shut down during the onset of the COVID pandemic. Earlier that week, the NBA, NHL, college sports, and nearly every other sport, closed its doors. After the first round at TPC Sawgrass that Thursday, the Tour decided to have no fans the rest of the way… then ultimately decided to cancel their flagship event altogether.

So what was it like for the caddies that unusual Thursday and early Friday?

“It was kind of surreal; nobody really knew what to do,” John Wood, current on-course reporter for NBC Sports who caddied for Matt Kuchar at the time, said. “There was all these rumors floating around but I don’t think anybody knew how serious it was going to be.”

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The first text came in the early evening from the Tour saying that they planned to finish the Players with no fans.

“When the first announcement came I think everybody thought that we’ll finish the week out with no fans and figure it out from there.”

Once the announcement came around 9:45 p.m. later that Thursday that the event was cancelled for the week, Wood and others had no idea how the season would play out.

“At that time I think everybody was thinking we’ll be out one, two weeks, maybe a month and then get right back to it,” Wood said. “Nobody knew what was going on yet.”

Seventeen-year veteran caddie Mal Baker (Talor Gooch) was staying with fellow caddies Terry Walker (Andrew Landry) and Josh Svendsen (Chesson Hadley). Both Baker and Walker had early tee times on Friday morning so they were asleep before the text message came that the tournament was cancelled and the season halted indefinitely. So Svendsen, watching the news on TV, woke them at 1 a.m. to inform them what their new reality looked like.

“When we look back on that, it feels like another time,” Baker said. “Many of us had been talking about COVID for a while but I think until you’re in a place where they actually shut down your job and tell you they don’t know when you’ll be able to go to work again, it all kind of becomes real. I talked with my wife for a while and we decided that I would drive home to Dallas instead of fly.”

Baker has consistent heart issues and has had four heart surgeries, so that reality was certainly on the minds of both he and his wife, Lori, in those frantic early morning hours when they decided he would drive 17 hours home to Dallas instead of flying and risk exposure to a disease they knew would be extra dangerous to him.

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Walker went to the course on that Friday and remembers the sights and sounds.

“At the course it was just sad,” Walker began. “This is the tournament that all of us look forward to. We knew it was an historic moment in time though. Everybody was just trying to get home. It was complete disbelief that this was happening.”

Paul Tesori was out early Thursday and heard from TV camera crews there would be no more fans. Once Tesori got the text that the event was cancelled, it hit him hard.

“I went through a lot of emotions. Obviously we had won two years before, we’re in seventh place that day, Webb was in the best form of his career and just so excited,” Tesori said. “I was pretty devastated to be honest with you. As the info came out it was obvious they didn’t have a choice. No one knew what we were dealing with at the time. They made the right choice, it’s just in the moment it was sad.”

Zach Guthrie (Tyler Duncan) was also out early Thursday. He turned his phone off and didn’t check it until the afternoon post round. Seeing that Disney World had closed gave him a “sense of inevitability” with the golf tournament.

Though it might have felt inevitable to some, the fact that play continued through all of Thursday left some with frustration.

“There was a sense of frustration if I recall with some of the Tour brass in the scoring area (Thursday),” James Edmondson (Ryan Palmer) said. “They didn’t feel like they were getting the full answer. ‘Why are we out here playing if we’re not gonna have any fans?’ Then eventually the Tour felt the same way, then we were done.

“I think the unknown was the scariest part for everybody because nobody knew what the future held for us.”

Palmer said the cancellation left him with an “odd feeling.”

“It wasn’t really sad, it was scary more than anything else,” Palmer said. “It was hard to believe what was about to transpire in the weeks to come.”

Twenty-year veteran caddie Jeff Willett (Nick Taylor) was following the NBA and NHL cancellations closely earlier that week. So when the Tour cancelled the Players it was expected, but still surprising.

“I thought ‘oh wow, here we go’,” Willett said. “I was thinking we could be done for a long time. It was just a really weird time, nobody knew how long we were going to be out.”

Since the Tour returned in June, it’s been nearly non-stop for players and caddies.

“Last week at Bay Hill, caddies were talking about how it’s been a long year. We’ve been traveling this whole thing except for those three months we were off. We’ve been right out in it,” Willett said.

Ben Hulka was caddying for C.T. Pan that week and also working on the player luggage trailer. Pan texted him before the event started that he would withdraw out of safety concerns. Hulka said he understood.

On Thursday, he was in the caddie headquarters watching Jay Monahan’s press conference where he explained that fans would not be there the rest of the week.

“It was just really eerie in that caddie area everyone watching the press conference intently, everything went quiet,” Hulka said. “You could hear a pin drop. We were thinking ‘is this for real?’”

Hulka was also on property on Friday as players showed up to get their equipment.

“Everybody was in their sweats going in to clear out their lockers, grab their clubs and we were just grabbing their luggage and saying ‘hey, not sure when we’re gonna see you but I guess this is goodbye for now’,” Hulka said.

That goodbye would last until Ryan Palmer struck that first tee shot in the Tour’s return at Colonial three months later.

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