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Dan Bickley

Record rounds from PGA Tour forecast change in fanless sports

Phil Mickelson tees off from the 17th hole during the first round of the Travelers Championship golf tournament at TPC River Highlands, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Cromwell, Conn. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Phil Mickelson loves a crowd. Fans swoon over his every swing. Their relationship is one of the best things about the PGA Tour.

Can he win a golf tournament without them?

Welcome to the first litmus test of Pandemic Sports, a strange new world where human competition is significantly altered by the lack of an audience. On the PGA Tour, we’ve seen a record number of pro golfers liberated by this awful virus, going lower and lower since the sport returned without galleries. These are professional athletes no longer inhibited by the crush of eyeballs, and the trend is fascinating:

At last week’s RBC Heritage, Webb Simpson set a new tournament scoring record at 22-under par, with a staggering 51 players finishing 10-under or better. At the Charles Schwab Challenge, 15 players shot 65 or lower during the opening round, a scoreboard assault unlike any other in the tournament’s 79-year history. American star Jordan Spieth confirmed what we’ve all witnessed since the PGA Tour returned on June 11.

“In general, it’s easier to win on the PGA Tour without fans, is what I’ve seen the first couple weeks,” Spieth said. “It’s easier to just be zoned in on pure golf.”

This is a trend worth scrutiny, especially with the impending return of the NBA and Major League Baseball. Attend a rock concert or Broadway play, and there is an energy exchange between performer and audience that is a crucial part of the equation, enhancing the entire experience.

Remove the fans, and the performing arts change dramatically. It becomes nothing more than a dress rehearsal.

It’s not as simple in sports, where athletes don’t recite lines or play instruments. They are competing against other humans. They risk a number of poor outcomes, from looking foolish to losing badly. They have no safety net inside packed stadiums.

Some athletes love the added pressure. Stars in every sport dominate because they love playing to the crowd, rising above all challenges, preying on those that don’t. They crave the challenge of mastering an opponent and the audience, using the latter to achieve the former.

On the flipside, there are countless athletes who are all skill and zero showmanship, the ones who don’t want to take the last-second shot; who don’t want to be in the spotlight; who don’t want to be on deck in the ninth inning with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Those athletes will thrive in the silence of a pandemic, when the real playing field and the one between the ears have been leveled significantly.

When other sports return, we might witness transcendent performances from names we never expected, from introverted players liberated by the new landscape. To the contrary, we might see great players marginalized by the lack of commotion, by a pandemic that has removed the adoring masses from the bottom line.

For now, the ball is in Mickelson’s court. He has the pedigree. He has 44 career PGA Tour victories. He lit up the Travelers Championship on Friday, seizing the lead with a sizzling 63. We could be witnessing the first great sporting triumph since a pandemic shut down professional sports.

But how will the lack of communal energy on the weekend affect Mickelson’s performance, when playing to the crowd is no longer in play? Can he close it out without the energy of his fan base, delivering a ratings boost to a PGA Tour that badly needs a dose of star power? A Tour that still hasn’t the return of Tiger Woods. A Tour that watched CBS pull the plug on last week’s rain-delayed tournament, opting for alternative programming.

Mickelson is just what we need in this moment, but it won’t be easy. Rory McIlroy melted down in the final round of the Schwab a few weeks ago, surpassed by lesser players, marginalized by the sounds of silence.

Stay tuned. In the end, it’s proof of how much we matter. And a reminder of how sports will never be the same without us.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

Bickley & Marotta

Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier