ORLANDO, FLORIDA (AP) – Billy Horschel walked along a long line of autograph seekers in central Florida on a beautiful spring day, signing every flag, cap, and golf ball thrown his way.
When asked if he had any health worries about dealing with fans, Horschel shrugged and said, “I’m going to sign anything someone hands me and then I’m going to go wash my hands.” It was the 8th of March, 2020.
Everything changed five days later.
There were still too many unknowns for Horschel when it came to COVID-19 on that ideal Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The NBA was still in action, while college basketball was gearing up for the March Madness tournament. The coronavirus was a news story on the evening news at the time, not a topic of discussion on the PGA Tour.
Horschel went on to say that he planned to keep signing autographs and connecting with fans in the future. He was unconcerned about the typical post-round handshake, either.
Horschel, like the majority of Tour players, has remained steadfast after two years, a punishing shutdown, and millions of tests and immunizations.
Horschel remarked this week at Bay Hill, “It still doesn’t matter.” “We all know the statistics and data; this may be oversimplified, but I believe you must live your life, and I believe you can be too safe and afraid of things in life.” That’s not who I want to be.”
Horschel is the first to concede that things have changed.
The ’20 Arnold Palmer Invitational was the Tour’s final event before the pandemic suspended play. Next a bizarre first round at the Players Championship the following week, officials joined every other sports league in suspending play.
Reminiscing about that Sunday at Bay Hill gives you a sense of how fast and suddenly things fell apart.
Zach Johnson finished the week at Bay Hill with Horschel in the same autograph line. Despite the Tour’s official cautions, he did what he’d always done: signed autographs, took photos, and interacted with fans. He had no intention of changing and had no desire to do so.
In ’20, he said, “I hadn’t thought about it.”
Johnson was reminded of his words when he made his way down a similar autograph line this week at Bay Hill. “Wow,” he laughed.
The Tour has been slowly returning to normal in the age of COVID-19, with full houses at the WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational this year, though the latter required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter.
The Florida swing is starting to feel more like business as usual, with less state and local restrictions.
“I’m glad we’re returning to some form of normalcy.” I know it’s out of the ordinary, but we have to find a way to live with it. “I believe we need to return to social connection because it is healthy,” Johnson added. “It changed for a while, but I believe we’re on our way back.” I don’t want to get my hopes up too high, but I believe we’ll be back.”
When the Tour resumed its schedule in June of last year, signing autographs was initially prohibited, and organizers implemented a new guideline this year “with a major focus on young fans,” according to a message distributed to players late last year, which included signing only in specified places.
This progression corresponds to how players’ attitudes on fan interaction have evolved over time. When fans returned in small numbers to the course in 2021, players tried to maintain the illusion of a bubble, but those barriers slowly slipped away.
“There wasn’t a lot of data when it happened, so you were a bit more protective at first,” Horschel explained, “but once you have a little more information, more data, and more research, you can make a more educated judgment.”
“The majority of people in this globe are returning to life as it was before COVID, while others continue to wear masks and wipe everything off, which is their choice, but not mine.”
Two years ago, Fowler was among the obstinate who unwittingly dug in against the approaching pandemic tide. The aftermath of the shutdown was difficult to manage as one of the game’s most popular and engaging players, but last week’s Honda Classic seemed familiar.
“I went with remaining safe, and once [his daughter] was born, I was definitely careful before that and until she received her vaccines,” Fowler said. “But signing, taking pictures, I was doing that every day after the round last week,” he said.
On that Sunday in ’20 at Bay Hill, there was one player who seemed to sense what was about to happen. Graeme McDowell said he’d continue to interact with fans and sign autographs, but added an alarming warning: “It’s going to effect our profession in some way, shape, or form in the next six months, you’d suppose.” “I just hope it doesn’t have too much of an impact,” he cautioned.
McDowell reflected on how far the Tour has gone since his prediction on Saturday at Bay Hill: “I don’t remember being so smart,” he smiled, “little did we know.” “We had no idea,” says the author.