Matsuyama matches record score as golf without fans looms for Friday
Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images Sport / Getty

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Fans scattered around the ninth green saw Hideki Matsuyama roll in a 25-foot eagle putt to tie the course record at the TPC Sawgrass and take the lead in The Players Championship.

And after Thursday, that's all they'll see.

Even with the best in the world competing for the richest purse in golf, The Players Championship felt like an afterthought amid rapid developments with the new coronavirus that led sports around the world to stop playing.

Golf goes on - but without fans.

The PGA Tour said it was banning spectators at all tournaments for at least the next month. The policy starts Friday, the first time one of the best theaters in golf will be virtually empty.

''I've never played a tour event like we're going to play tomorrow with no fans,'' Phil Mickelson said after a 75 that left him in danger of missing another cut. ''It will be a very weird experience, and I feel bad for the people here that have supported this tournament for so many decades to not be able to come on out.''

The crowd was thinner than usual, even by Thursday morning standards. Players were alerted late Wednesday to prepare to play, even as the NBA announced it was suspending its season and other sports leagues followed.

Before long, the tour decided to keep fans away.

That wasn't enough for C.T. Pan of Taiwan, who withdrew before his afternoon tee time because he wanted to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Pan said on Twitter: ''Our lifestyle is like a circus, traveling from one place to another. We believe this is a time to exercise caution by not playing this week.''

Matsuyama opened with four straight birdies and closed with a 3-wood into 25 feet for eagle and a 9-under 63, the ninth player to share the record at Sawgrass.

He had a two-shot lead over Harris English and Christiian Bezuidenhout of South Africa. For much of the day, they were just names and numbers on the scoreboard.

Graeme McDowell described a somber mood in the locker room and on the range as he tried to get warmed up.

''We just don't really know how to react and didn't really know what to expect,'' McDowell said after a 68, his best score in his last 20 rounds at Sawgrass. ''At one point, I was nearly expecting the horns to go off out there for us all to be taken off the golf course.''

Jordan Spieth, who shot 75 as his struggles showed few signs of improving, wasn't aware of the decision when he teed off. He first caught wind during an exchange with a fan that made him pause.

''Guys were saying, `We're going to miss you guys this weekend' during the middle of the round,'' Spieth said. ''We thought that was kind of rude, meaning we're not going to be here this weekend. Then I realized when I was told that they said there's no spectators the rest of the week.''

Fans who made it into the tournament Thursday were told no autographs were allowed. They weren't asked to leave when the tour decided to ban spectators, and people were still coming into the course in the afternoon.

Commissioner Jay Monahan said the tour received information that the virus was not yet a major threat in the area - his two daughters were in school, theaters and businesses remained open - but acknowledged the situation was fluid.

Why not just shut down golf entirely?

He said golf was different because it was an outdoors event over a sprawling piece of property and noted that golf was a non-contact sport.

''We feel that this is a safe environment in which to continue to move forward ... with limited personnel on site, and we're comfortable that this is the right path forward,'' Monahan said. ''But that is something that we'll continue to consider as we go forward.''

As for the golf? Fans saw plenty of birdies, eagles and a few balls in the water around the island green at the par-3 17th. Patrick Cantlay returned from three weeks off to have surgery for a deviated septum with a 67. One-third of the early starters broke 70.

Justin Thomas had a 71 and was asked to give a few comments about his round.

''I feel like I don't real really need to say that,'' Thomas said. ''Everyone else wants to talk about other stuff, so it doesn't really matter. I shot 1 under. It's not that great.''

Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka were among those playing in the afternoon, the last golf fans will see in person for the next month or longer.

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Matsuyama matches record score as golf without fans looms for Friday
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