The world paused on March 11, 2020.
Schools and businesses closed their doors, sending everybody home. Every sort of entertainment and diversion followed. Sports disappeared almost literally overnight. One day, we were watching conference tournaments, the end of the NBA and NHL regular seasons, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, and the next day … we weren’t.
The details of those early days have fuzzed over rather quickly after the deluge of information and adaptation since last March — What were we all thinking? What were we all doing? Were we scared? Yes, some of us were scared — but a year can fog memory only so much.
Jeff Plotts and Lucas Andrews remember working on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass late on the night of March 12, a Thursday — a day after the pause — still planning every moment for the second round of The Players. Plotts, the director of golf course maintenance at TPC Sawgrass, was working under the impression that the course would be closed to spectators but that competition would continue.
“We had a good night that night,” Plotts remembers. “Our team performed really well in a split shift and had the golf course ready to go for Friday. It was still light. It was probably 8 o’clock or so, maybe even a little later than that. Those are long days for us, Thursday and Friday.”
Plotts conferred with Andrews, the Stadium Course superintendent, then walked to his car and started to drive home.
“He had made it two minutes before he called me and said, ‘Can you talk?’” Andrews says. “I pretty much knew then that it was only when we were calling it.”
After a single round of play, Hideki Matsuyama topped the leaderboard at 9 under. Not long after that, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that “as the situation continued to escalate, and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, not if, we would need to call it a day.” Plotts and Andrews were among the first to know.
“I think we all knew deep down inside as we were kind of talking about how things might fold out,” Plotts says. “There were a lot of meetings going on at a very high level that didn’t include Lucas or me, but internally it became evident that once Disney closed, there were going to be some substantial changes here to take place the next day.”
Plotts recognized the similarities between guests at Disney World and patrons at TPC Sawgrass — the sheer numbers, sure, but also the outdoor physical distancing — and he knew that however Disney acted, everybody in the hospitality industry would follow. Once Disney closed and TPC Sawgrass followed, attention turned almost immediately from the course to their crew of 100 volunteers.
“Our focus really became the volunteers,” Plotts says. “What do we do with the volunteers? How do we support them? These are young people, men and women, that are trying to find their place in our industry. To go through something like that and be that far from home” — 60 of the 100 volunteers last year were international — “it’s a little bit of a scary adventure. So we had to remain calm and just kind of reassure people that they were going to be taken care of, and that this is kind of part of life — that you’re going to have this kind of adversity and you’re going to have to overcome.”
Many of the volunteers were unable to change their flights to an earlier departure. Even without a tournament to work, their accommodations and expenses were still covered. “The Tour was very understanding,” Plotts says.
After the blur of that Thursday night, Andrews returned to the Stadium Course the next morning with his crew “and just aerated the greens, just to get a jump,” he says. “We knew there wasn’t going to be any golf being played through the weekend so we took the opportunity. We had an aggressive cultural program and targets last year, and those three extra days gave us an opportunity to get a leg up on the year, really get off to a good start for the summer.” More aeration followed throughout the year, with greens aerated three times each month, and tees, fairways and approaches aerated “four or five times” throughout the year. Andrews says his crew also topdressed weekly, “so that kept us really busy.”
In early May, Dye’s Valley at TPC Sawgrass received the first slot on a rescheduled Korn Ferry Tour — Luke List won the new Korn Ferry Challenge by a stroke on June 14 — but the club had served as a host of sorts for regular play throughout the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: About 90 players from the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour, the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Latinoamérica descended on TPC Sawgrass for informal two-day competitions every week from late March to early June. “I think it was pretty smart of them,” Plotts says.
TPC Sawgrass never closed, Plotts says, and the club was able to avoid furloughing any crew members in part by not filling internships after the last round of interns headed home. Like many clubs across the country, the rest of the year was strong.
And now, with the 2021 Players scheduled to tee off March 11, emotions are in full swing. Plotts and Andrews are leading the crew again. Ten volunteers from last year are among the 75 working on the course this week. Television cameras are ready to capture every blade of grass.
“The closer you get to perfection, the more finite the details that you have to look at are,” Andrew says. “I’m really, really, really proud of the team. We really pulled together this year and the guys that didn’t get to finish the tournament last year, they’ve been working with a chip on their shoulder to get it done. This has been really good for us as a team and I think it’s a really good step in the right direction for us moving forward. I’m excited for the new standards.
“We’re just looking forward to getting this one in the books and putting our focus on ’22.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.