The concept of normal has been a moving target for sporting events in the Coachella Valley the last three years. But normal, or at least close to normal, is what The American Express PGA Tour event in La Quinta is hoping for this week.
For the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the winter of 2020, The American Express golf tournament will be played without at least some restrictions from Riverside County, the state of California or its own abundance of caution.
“We’ve had restrictions the last couple of years, 2021 with no fans certainly and no pro-am, and then of course last year we had the restriction where you had to test upon arrival or have proof of vaccination,” said Pat McCabe, executive director of The American Express. “So we are looking as if we will have a year where we will not have those limitations or restrictions to enter the tournament.”
In 2021, strict state and county restrictions meant The American Express was played without fans at the three La Quinta courses used for the event. But it was The American Express tournament officials that decided to cancel the 156-player amateur portion of the tournament that year in an effort to limit exposure for both professionals, amateurs and caddies.
Last January, the pro-am returned as did fans. But the fans had to prove their vaccination status, something that kept crowds for the event down.
“(The virus) was definitely very still prevalent, of course,” McCabe said. “I think our crowds were maybe a little bit lighter than obviously, well, lighter than 2020 and other previous years. So I think it affected it in that regard. But overall, we still had a great year. We had a great field last year, people still came out to the concerts, the great music acts, and we still gave $1 million away to charity, which is what it is all about.”
Joining other tournaments with no restrictions
The LPGA’s Chevron Championship, played in 2020 and 2021 without fans because of county restrictions, was played last April with fans and without a proof of vaccination requirement.
In December, the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells announced it would not require proof of vaccination for fans attending in March. The BNP Paribas Open was not played in March 2020 or March 2021, but returned in October 2021 with fans required to show vaccination status. Crowds were noticeably down at the tennis tournament than from pre-pandemic levels.
“After consultation with health and industry experts, the 2023 BNP Paribas Open will not require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for fans attending the event at Indian Wells Tennis Garden,” the tennis tournament said in a December statement announcing the vaccination change. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation leading up to the tournament and reevaluate any policies as necessary.”
McCabe said it makes sense that a golf event might not need a vaccination requirement.
“We are an outdoor sport and we are also spread across three different courses. There are no numbers on seats at a golf tournament, so to speak,” McCabe said. “You can go anywhere you like and keep your distance from others. But that’s kind of what makes it different. It’s outdoors and it tends to be more on the safer side as far as activities go.”
One potential advantage of the smaller crowds for The American Express in 2022 was the ability to test the event’s new traffic flow system for concert nights. In 2020, with acts Stevie Nicks and Luke Bryan, estimates were of 20,000 people at the concerts, with some estimates as high as 25,000 including people from surrounding PGA West residential areas walking to the concerts without buying tickets. The tournament wasn’t expecting that many fans, and traffic after the concerts jammed Jefferson Street.
Last year, the tournament implemented a new traffic flow plan that included some people driving through residential areas of PGA West to exit onto Madison Street and others driving from the main parking lot at Jefferson Street and Avenue 54 through the Talus property to exit onto Avenue 52 rather than Avenue 54. Traffic flow improved, with perhaps half the number of fans at concerts as in 2020. McCabe said additional changes have been made to traffic patterns this year that should accommodate an increase in concert goers.