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I No Longer Have To Pretend I Was Enjoying Sports Without Crowds

KIAWAH ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 23: Phil Mickelson of the United States retrieves his golf ball on the 18th green after putting to win during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort on May 23, 2021 in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Life in the pandemic has been a never-ending parade of rough measurements, and here’s one more for you. I can now use the PGA Championship—which up until 10 months ago was such an afterthought in the golf world that fans like me openly asked for it to be replaced as one of golf’s four majors—to draw a direct line between sports during the COVID outbreak and sports in The After. We’ll start in August 2020, at the first major of that year thanks to the cancelation or postponement of all four, when Collin Morikawa hit THIS shot on 16 to all but seal his first major title:

That was one of the greatest golf shots I’ve ever seen, but the fact that Morikawa drilled it on an empty San Francisco course robbed the moment of its sheen. I had to picture a gallery on hand to witness that moment. I had to imagine them absolutely losing their shit as Morikawa hit the approach that established both his career and his legacy all in one compact stroke.

I didn’t have to use my imagination this year. I got to watch Phil Mickelson hit the shot of his life—and it’s been a very long one—in front of a real crowd. And this is what that looked like:

Since Morikawa’s title in August, I have watched the Lakers win the NBA bubble title, and the Lightning win the bubble Stanley Cup, and the Bucs win an entire NFL season. The sports I watched mid-pandemic scratched most of my sports itches. Most of them. I could tell myself the titles were valid (they were), and that the games were still exciting (they were), and that I was fine with no crowds and with phony noise piped into the telecast. After yesterday, I know that I was bullshitting myself on that last one.

It wasn’t just that Mickelson, who has an affinity for shooting himself in the dick in the biggest possible moments in the most garish possible fashion, had to hit that shot on 18 with thousands of silent eyes on him. It’s what happened AFTER he landed the ball right on the edge of proper social distance from the cup. Since Mickelson and beef circuit pioneer Brooks Koepka were the final pairing at the Ocean Course, the gallery was allowed to coalesce behind them on the fairway, which they did. All too happily. They overran Mickelson and his caddie so completely that the two men had to struggle to free themselves onto the green.

I wanna tell you I was worried for Mickelson’s safety, but I wasn’t, because no golfer on Earth elicits more GET IN THE HOLE!s than this man. Fans love that fucker and the feeling would appear to be, at least superficially, mutual. And I wanna tell you that my COVID cop instincts kicked in and I was going, “Oh no, this is a superspreader event! AWKWARD!” Nope. That didn’t happen, either. I was too fucking HAPPY to care about any of that. I was overcome. Choking up in my recliner like the shameless dad I am.

Everyone else around Kiawah was also too delirious to spoil the moment. I wasn’t watching Mickelson. I was watching all the people. I couldn’t stop. A friend of mine texted, “you watching the pga championship and the crowds? covid is over.” Now, you and I both know that’s not true. But you and I are allowed, as the vaccine age marches on, to enjoy those moments where it FEELS like it’s all over. And when that crowd amassed around 18 to watch Mickelson sink the final gimme, and when Trae Young devastated a packed Garden a few hours later, it felt definite for me. Sports are back. Everything is back. It’s all coming back. It’s all here.

Sports has that odd power over your imagination. I’m one of the people who marked the rough beginning of the pandemic with Rudy Gobert’s positive test on March 11 of last year. And now, 437 days later, I’m marking down what I just saw as the end of it. That may not be YOUR end date for the pandemic, and I’m not gonna judge you if it isn’t. All I know is that, for me, Sunday felt like everything, at long last, was right back where it ought to be.

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