The last couple of days has been very tough on not only our country but the world. We all miss golf and our weekly routine of tournament golf and we can only hope that we can get back to our normal routine. Personally for me and a lot of you, this week is a favorite with the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, which had to be cancelled. It’s too bad but our country and the world have other more dramatic problems with the Coronavirus, which we all hope will run its course and we can get back to all of our normal routines.
In talking with fellow writer Gary Van Sickle, who also was saddened with the cancellation, we dreamed about any way that this great event could go on. But the reality is there are more pressing issues which make it impossible, but for Gary and I, we have a vivid imagination that came up with a whimsical tale that the Match Play could go on this week. So here is nothing more than a fun look that is completely real in our minds but in reality nothing more than a fictitious fable.
It’s a seven-part series that will be put up every night, so I hope you enjoy Part 1 of:
Our (fabricated ) WGC-Dell Match Play
By Gary Van Sickle & Sal Johnson
April 1, 2020
Hi, I’m Joey, a 25- year-old up and comer that a year ago was a public relations intern for Dell Technologies. I’m a fictitious character, the alter-ego of the authors of this fabricated tale. I find myself on a very real exotic beach on the island of Fiji, watching the sun go down and reliving the last three weeks of what could be one of golf’s most extraordinary adventures. In just 21 days, I managed to pull off the planning and execution of a relocated WGC-Dell Technology Match Play Championship, something that usually takes years to plan but with the help of many, it all worked. Hey, even the President of the United States got involved in helping us pull this off. The results couldn’t have been better as the week turned out to be one of golf’s best weeks ever, which ended with a great final match. To think, just a year ago, I was a glorified gofer, and here I am – basking on a tropical beach and musing about the unlikely series of events that brought me here from TPC Sawgrass.
You’re probably wondering what in the hell all of this has to do with golf and the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, well here is the tale.
Two weeks before the Match Play Championship was to be played in Austin, Texas, I went to the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, checking with players and coordinating PR for the Match Play Championship. I became involved in logistical meetings with the PGA Tour as they began to plan how the arrival of coronavirus on American soil would affect upcoming tournaments. Although things were ok when I arrived on Tuesday of tournament week, things rapidly changed as the week progressed.
Wednesday, March 11th
I attended a meeting in which the PGA Tour commissioner was very concerned about the potential spread of coronavirus across the nation. The news came in that a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus, causing the NBA to suspend the season. Although tour management was concerned, things in the Jacksonville area appeared to be ok so they decided to go ahead with the first round.
Thursday, March 12th – First Round of the Players Championship
The next morning was a picture-perfect day for golf, but for tournament officials, things deteriorated quickly. The coronavirus was reported in Florida, as Florida Senator Rick Scott was self-quarantining, and people were getting worried. Tournament officials were considering halting the tournament, and they realized that further cancellations were likely for future events. This would cause major hardships for the tournaments themselves and the charities that they benefit, and the group started to brainstorm to find ways to avoid cancellations.
Someone suggested that because the NCAA was planning to play with no fans, it could work for golf, and the officials agreed. The decision was made to prohibit fans at the Players Championship after Thursday’s round, as well as at the upcoming Valspar, The WGC-Dell Match Play and the Valero Texas Open. I called my bosses at Dell to break the bad news.
When the top brass at Dell joined me for the call, they relayed the news with an Austin point of view. Not only was South by Southwest, but city officials were getting tough on any kind of events in which groups of 50 or more were gathering. I related to them that the Commissioner wanted to see the Match Play go forward, but without crowds. A sad voice boomed over the phone, “Nobody will care about an event with no fans, and I think after Sunday’s final round of the Players that not only golf but all sports, will be finished for the year”. Someone else noted that there probably was no time to move the tournament, even if a new venue was found. I naively asked whether I should look for another place, and there was laughter on the phone. Then someone shouted out, “Guys stop it. At the rate this virus is spreading, in two week’s time we may have nothing better to watch than these damn daily Coronavirus updates from the White House,” he asserted. “I am pretty sure the country will be dying for some kind of sporting event. Joey, if you can make it work, we would approve the added cost.”
As soon as the call ended, I went to work. I searched the internet to see if anyplace was free of the Coronavirus. Although the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland was the best resource, there was no list posted. I called WHO and, by some miracle, found someone to e-mail a list to me. The list had far-flung places like Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Myanmar, Turkmeenistan, and a whole bunch of countries in Africa that didn’t have airports. One country stood out: Fiji. In looking on the internet about it, the country consists of 330 islands, and the main island of Viti Lev is about 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand. The island has two golf courses, and one, the Natadola Bay Golf Course, held a European Tour event, the Fiji International, for three years, the last being in 2018.
Natadola Bay got high marks from Golf Digest. It was designed by Vijay Singh, opened in 2009, and was redone by Singh in 2016. Situated on the Coral Coast beside Natadola Bay, the course is on the bottom of a hill and overlooks the Pacific Ocean which can be seen from 15 of the 18 holes. The course is on sloping terrain and on windy days can be challenging. It’s a par 72 that plays just a bit under 7,200 yards. It has the traditional 4 par 3s, 4 par 5s and 10 par 4s. Since the course is straightforward, it probably favors long hitters, with generous, well-bunkered fairways. The greens are good sized with lots of undulations. In the three tournaments held there, Brandt Snedeker was the winner in 2016, Jason Norris in 2017 and Gaganjeet Bhullar 2018, with Snedeker’s 18 under the lowest score.
To be fair Natadola Bay was more of a resort-style course that wouldn’t be the top choice for a match play championship, but at this point any course that didn’t have the threat of the coronavirus was good. One big plus of the course it has great accommodations near it, one on the course itself. On paper, it looked promising, but the big problem was the distance – 5,500 miles from Los Angeles to Fiji plus another 2,500 miles to Florida. That’s a big transportation cost and could make it impossible.
I decided to see if someone in Fiji that could help me. The country has a tourism office in Los Angeles, so I called them and spoke with a very nice and friendly lady. As I explained my idea to her, I realized that she probably thought I was crazy. She cut me off and said she needed to make some calls but would call me back, and I figured that was the end of that.
About 15 minutes, I answered a call with a prefix I didn’t recognize. The caller had a thick accent that I couldn’t place and introduced himself as the Secretary for Industry, Trade, and Tourism in Suva, Fiji. I thanked him for calling and explained that I was exploring the possibility of relocating the Match Play championship to Fiji and wondered if something like this was possible on short notice. He asked how short and I said a week and it was like the phone line went dead. I continued and explained it would be 64 players with wives and caddies, along with officials, media and television that would be seen in a lot of countries by millions of people. That seemed to perk him up and he asked how many people could be watching and I said, could be up to 15 million in just the United States and who knows how many others around the world watch. He seemed very interested and I explained that we needed a minimum of 1,000 rooms within an hour’s drive of the golf course. We also needed an answer within a couple hours if we would have a prayer of making this work. All I could think about was how crazy this man must have thought I was and wonder if he would even bother to help me. But he said he would check and get back to me quickly, so I left my idea in his hands.
An hour later the phone rang and his friendly voice was on the phone with both good and bad news. First the good news: he talked with several people, including the Prime Minister of Fiji, and despite the short notice, it was feasible. He asked a colleague that was involved with the logistics of the Fiji International to go through the files from the event to see how they put together the same infrastructure for those three years of events, including being able to handle television.
He also said that the timing was perfect because I called just before the Fiji government was going to enact another round of tough measures to make sure the virus didn’t get to Fiji. Because the only airline that serves the country is the national airline, they are able to control things better. They would allow us to bring charter flights in with the stipulation that every person coming in had to be thoroughly screened and tested.
I was lucky, this man was the perfect person to call. I couldn’t have been happier but then asked him what his bad news was. He explained that with such short notice he couldn’t promise the 1,000 rooms, he could only muster up 600 that would be close to the course and another 300 just over an hour drive in the towns of Nadi and Lautoka. I heaved a sigh of relief and said we’d figure a way to deal with that and set up a call for him with my the PGA Tour and my bosses.
I returned to the Tour meetings while the first round of the Players was coming to a conclusion with Hidek Matsuyama shooting 63 and leading by two shots. Things looked grim in the room over the fate of the Players Championship. It was if the virus had shut down the entire sports infrastructure of America. Major League Baseball stopped spring training that afternoon and postponed opening day by two weeks. Then NCAA took the sad step of canceling March Madness, and the National Hockey League also postponed its season. Even Disneyworld and Universal Studios were closing their Orlando theme parks. The Commissioner announced that players were expressing their concerns and that he had no choice but to cancel the rest of the Players, as well as the Valspar, Dell Match Play and the Valero Texas Open. The room grew silent.
I took a deep breath and asked if he would be willing to listen to an alternative. He grinned and looked at his lieutenants as if to say, “Who is this kid?” Then he laughed and said, “Sure I’ll listen.” I quickly explained to him my findings on Fiji and how officials of that country had preliminarily felt they could handle the event. The representative of the European Tour asked to excuse himself for five minutes and left the room, while the Commissioner asked how we could possibly get players, officials, and television to Fiji in time to set everything up.
I explained that I had called several airline charter companies, and they could handle this, even on such short notice. To transport the players, I contacted the company that had flown the Presidents Cup team from the Bahamas to Australia last year, and their Boeing 777 airliner was available. The European Tour representative came back into the room and announced that, while the Fiji International was not a big financial success, the players loved the course and the area. He added that the Fiji officials were great to work with and helped make the event a success.
At this point, several people walked in, including producers and executives from NBC. They were disappointed but not surprised to hear about the cancellation of the Players Championship and other events. The Commissioner brought up the idea of moving the Match Play to Fiji, and their first reaction was that it would be impossible because they couldn’t get their equipment there quickly enough on ships. I piped in that they could send them on planes, and they laughed and said it was too expensive, plus the trucks were too big. I told them that I’d found a company with two cargo 747s that had shipped full-size buses and figured they could just about ship anything. The boys at NBC said it maybe it was possible and left to figure out the feasibility of all this plus cost and manpower needed.
We ended the day with the Commissioner planning to announce the cancellation of the events, but he agreed to say they were still discussing a solution for the Match play. He called a Friday morning meeting with the players to see their level of interest. If they agreed to the move, he proposed cutting the field from 64 to 32 to cut the transportation and logistical costs. We all agreed this was a good idea and realized that at least we had a chance to save the Match Play.
We had taken the first step, and the Commissioner and the Fiji government finally spoke and agreed that this could work before planning to speak again the next day.
Friday the 13th
In making some calls, first, to Crystal Cruises, I found out that the 777 only had room for 88 people but they could handle the charter. Since things were closing down and they had no more bookings for the plane, they would fly us over and keep the plane in Fiji for the two weeks. With that they needed accommodations for their crew of 10.
The Commissioner and I discussed the timing of flights and decided that it would be best to have them leave directly from the Players Championship. That would minimize their travel and decrease their potential exposure to the virus. It also would give the players time to acclimate to the time change, go to the beach, and practice their golf games. We also agreed to offer the free flight for the player, caddie and the players’ spouse or friend.
The players meeting had about 110 of the 144 players in the Players field, and they were disappointed at the cancellations but understood it was for the best interest of all. After ending the meeting, the Commissioner asked players in The Match Play field to remain in the room and outlined the plan.
They were astonished, but the more they talked about it, the more they liked the idea. When the Commissioner dropped the bomb about needing to trim the field to 32 plus two alternates, those in the bottom half were disappointed but understood and left.
I then showed the players pictures of the course, the hotel, the general area and they agreed it would be good and in principle, they thought it would be a great idea. One sticking point was the need to leave soon and limitations on the number of family members. Several players were concerned that it would be irresponsible of them to be off on a Pacific Island when their families were home worrying as the problems of coronavirus grew. Some European players couldn’t get their families to America and wanted to head back to their homes no matter what. At this point, the Commissioner stepped in and said, “If we agree that you can bring over your wife and children, would that help?” The players looked at each other, and you could see that these were the magic words needed for them to agree to the plan. In order for them to have time to sort things out, we agreed on a Monday departer day, giving players three days to get things in place and get new clothes.
The NBC people nearly threw a wrench into the works when they pointed out that the cost would be three to five times higher than the normal Match Play tournament. The Commissioner listened to them and mentioned that it was likely that this would be the only sporting event in the world that week. That got their attention, and they agreed to try and find a way to make it technically work, along with finding ways to cut costs.
With the players in agreement for a Monday departure, NBC working up their plans, and the Commissioner now on board, it was time for me to get the Dell executives involved, especially since they were paying the bill for this. In a conference call, I was pleasantly shocked at the reaction to the plan and mostly the cost. They realized the potential of this, that for a week they would have the only sporting event in the world going.
During the rest of my Friday the 13th, things continued to fall into place. Working through the PGA Tour media department, we got a yes from most of the players in the field. The only negative answers were from three European players that needed to get home to help family members. The number 33 player in the World rankings would have loved to go, but he needed to return to England and help his dad, who was a retired pastor that was coming out of retirement because of the coronavirus. The Commissioner contacted the two players that weren’t at the Players: Tiger Woods, who sat out the Players because of his back and Lee Westwood, who stayed in England to attend Cheltenham Festival horse race. Woods said yes, and Westwood wanted to come but couldn’t get a plane to America. But when the Commissioner outlined his plan in a phone call to the White House, President Trump gave an enthusiastic yes to the plan and said he would help get Westwood to America, “even if it meant sending Air Force One to bring him over.” The President was true to his words on getting Westwood over, but it wasn’t on Air Force One. Instead, he had the military to send the Vice President’s plane, and they brought back Westwood as well as a couple of dozen embassy workers that were stuck in Europe. So, with a couple of days left before departure, things were looking good.
In part II everything has come into place as everyone leaves Jacksonville and it’s off to Fiji.