* Ban ends just ahead of Masters
* President Trump supports decision
* LPGA postpones next three events (Adds LPGA postponing three events)
By Steve Keating
PONTE VEDRA, Fla., March 12 (Reuters) - The PGA Tour has banned spectators from attending tournaments through April 5, starting with Friday’s second round of the Players Championship, because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, it said on Thursday.
The announcement was made by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan at TPC Sawgrass, where fans were already in place midway through the opening round of what is widely regarded as golf’s unofficial fifth major.
Later on Thursday the premier women’s circuit, the LPGA Tour, took an even bigger step, postponing three upcoming tournaments in western U.S. states.
The PGA Tour had been criticised for pushing on with the Players’ opening round after a flood of leagues and other sporting events across North America announced cancellations and postponements.
Monahan said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday and that the White House was supportive of the precautionary measures the PGA Tour has taken.
“At this point in time, PGA Tour events - across all tours -will currently proceed as scheduled, but will do so without fans,” said Monahan, adding that the policy cold still change.
“This is a difficult situation, one with consequences that impact our players, fans and the communities in which we play.”
Earlier on Thursday, the PGA Tour said that, given the information available, the Players Championship would continue as scheduled but added it was a “very fluid situation that requires constant review”.
At TPC Sawgrass, where the first group of golfers teed off at 7:40 a.m. ET (1240 GMT), signs were posted indicating that an autograph ban was in place.
The ban on spectators ends just before the April 9-12 Masters at Augusta National where the year’s first major is due to be played.
Last week, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said the Masters will proceed as scheduled and precautions will be established to ensure the safety of everyone following the coronavirus outbreak.
Augusta National did not immediately respond when asked by Reuters if it still expects to allow patrons at this year’s Masters.
The spectator ban also affects the March 19-22 Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, the March 25-29 World Golf Championships-Match Play event in Austin and April 2-5 Valero Texas Open in San Antonio.
Monahan also said the March 26-29 event in Punta Cana has been postponed because of travel advisories and potential logistical issues associated with players and staff travelling internationally.
Several U.S. domestic sports leagues plus tennis tournaments and soccer competitions have been suspended or delayed but the PGA Tour said it decided against cancelling events completely because of how golf tournaments are set up and operated.
“If you look at our venues, obviously we’re an outdoor sport, we’re not in a stadium, and here this week at TPC Sawgrass our players are making their way over 400 acres,” Monahan told a packed news conference.
“You’ve got 144 players here and over the course of a round our players generally do socially distance themselves.
“There are other circumstances that led to the decisions that those leagues made that are unique to those leagues that we’re not currently faced with.”
While the PGA Tour, for the time being at least, will proceed without fans, the LPGA will shut down completely for at least three weeks.
It has postponed next week’s Founders Cup in Phoenix, and the following two events in California, the Kia Classic in Calsbad and the major ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage.
“The plan is to reschedule these events for later dates in the 2020 season,” the tour said.
Reporting by Steve Keating; Writing by Frank Pingue; Additional reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Toby Davis/Ed Osmond/Ken Ferris