Akron Beacon Journal photographer Jeff Lange didn’t see John Daly snap his putter on the 16th hole Saturday at Firestone Country Club.
But Lange heard it.
During a normal year, even in 2019 when the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship replaced the departed World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, the loud crack might not have been audible. Still a man of the people on the PGA Tour Champions, Daly would have drawn a crowd and there would have been buzz as he hit two shots in the water and 3-putted.
In the fan-less COVID-19 world of professional golf, Lange was still able to capture the aftermath of Daly’s dismay after a quadruple-bogey 9, which left Daly putting with a 3-wood for his remaining holes.
Through four beautiful days marred only by a Sunday afternoon thunderstorm, Firestone’s South Course was eerily quiet. A tough Friday crosswind left the field fighting to compensate, but at least the sound of a ball cutting through tree leaves kept one observer from being struck.
The few outside the ropes were marshals, volunteers, girlfriends, wives, tour officials, the cleaning crew and Golf Channel staffers.With no television towers erected, the network used “spiders,” a motorized vehicle that looks more appropriate for saving house fire victims from the second story. Only two spiders were on site last year, but with no fans in 2020 the Golf Channel decided to bring in more.
Don Padgett III, executive director of the Bridgestone Senior Players, got the chance to sit behind the ninth green for about an hour watching some groups come through, which he said he’d never done in 14 years in this role. He marveled at being to hear every “good shot” or “good putt” uttered and felt like he was sneaking a peek at an everyday foursome, not the world’s best 50-and-over pros.
Those who did the same clapped politely but lightly at such shots. A robust reaction felt totally out of place.
Padgett also stood at the first tee on Thursday when Fred Couples, Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez opened the tournament.
“We all watched them tee off and said, ‘There would have been a lot of people here with that group going off,’” Padgett said.
But even without fans, Padgett was glad the event went on. Especially after 13 Champions Tour events were canceled and two Senior majors were postponed, including the Bridgestone, previously scheduled for July 9-12.
“Everybody uses ‘Things are fluid,’ and when you’re trying to plan a big event and all the volunteers and supporters, it’s definitely a moving target. We had the goalposts moved on us a few times this year,” Padgett said.
The biggest challenge in putting on the $3 million tournament during the pandemic was awaiting the decision on fans, not announced until July 22, because of the structures that needed to be erected.
“We could have had limited fans-full hospitality, like Memorial had been approved for, we could have had just hospitality, or we could have had nobody,” Padgett said. “There was a time where we could have a full event, or if things really went sideways no event, and about three scenarios in between. You were just trying to make your best guess.”
Amid the economic devastation brought on by the health crisis, the event held a Wednesday pro-am at Firestone, a priority on the Champions Tour, and the Westfield Legends Pro-Am Thursday at Westfield Country Club. This year $750,000 was donated back to charity, as compared to $825,000 in 2019.
“It will be gratifying to know that we had a big impact on the community —$150,000 to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, other great partners, the LeBron James Family Foundation will get some funds this year,” Padgett said. “That’s what it’s all about for a lot of people and why they’re involved with this event.“All things considered, I think we’re going to have a really successful week.”
The field saw Firestone with all its teeth, with firm and fast conditions rarely seen during the WGC days from 1999-2018. Yes, there were COVID-19 tests and protocols. In-restaurant dining was prohibited by the tour, which meant no visits to the Diamond Grille.
But the competitors, even as they struggled, their wives and girlfriends may have enjoyed a peaceful respite amid the beauty of the historic oak-lined course.
If John Daly’s putter could talk, it might be the lone dissenter.