Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 23, 2020

Golf Returns. Definitely. Probably. Maybe.

Jay Monahan has a plan. Late last week the commissioner of the PGA Tour announced a schedule for golf’s premier circuit to resume play, and sports fans, so starved for live action that a YouTube channel devoted to competitive marble racing has racked up 35 million views, reacted with unalloyed joy. The Tour’s 2019-20 season, abruptly halted by the spreading coronavirus pandemic after the first round of the Players Championship six weeks ago, will resume on June 11 at venerable Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth with the opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge.

If that date for the start of the annual event at the course known as “Hogan’s Alley” doesn’t sound quite right to diehard golf fans, it’s because the tournament has been rescheduled from its traditional May spot on the calendar. The move of the “Colonial,” as it will always be known irrespective of a given year’s sponsor, is just one of many changes to the Tour’s schedule. In addition to the Players, six other tournaments originally set for the period between that forlorn Thursday at TPC Sawgrass and Monahan’s proposed restart have been cancelled outright. Three others on the calendar for later this year, including most prominently the 2020 Open Championship scheduled for Royal St. George’s in July, have also joined the long list of sports events felled by the pandemic. And the new schedule includes myriad shuffles of dates, with a total of fourteen tournaments now in new slots. Three of those are the majors that organizers still hope to contest this year – the PGA Championship in August, the U.S. Open in September, and the Masters shortly before Thanksgiving.

Under the plan, the Tour’s 2020-21 season will culminate as usual with the Tour Championship in Atlanta, now to be played over Labor Day weekend, one week later than on the original schedule. That will make for thirty-six tournaments during a season that began last September. While substantially fewer than planned, players, fans, and the golf media seem to agree that the number would be enough to make the season’s results legitimate. But the work of cobbling together a schedule combined with the Tour’s decision back in 2013 to start each official season in the fall rather than follow the traditional calendar will make for a major oddity, as in major championships. While three are still scheduled to take place in 2020, the PGA Championship will be the only one contested in the current Tour season. Then, assuming tournaments return to their usual spots next year, the 2020-21 PGA Tour season will feature six majors, with two editions each of the U.S. Open and Masters. Even with that, fitting everything into the time available would not have been possible but for the move of the Summer Olympics to next year.

But once the cheers that greeted Monahan’s announcement died away, it quickly became apparent that more than anything golf’s potential return illustrates the enormous challenges all our major sports face in resuming play. If it can be said that the commissioner has filled in his Tour’s calendar, it must also be pointed out that his entries are written in pencil, all easily erased.

For starters there is the job of getting the participants onto the field of play. Tour pros come from all over the world, as do their caddies. The estimate is that as many as twenty-five players, and an even greater number of loopers, are waiting out the coronavirus outside the United States. Given current travel restrictions, just getting all of them to the first tee will be complex. Then there is the human infrastructure needed to stage a tournament. Even without fans in attendance, and thus without the need for volunteers to manage the movement of people or man concession stands, tournament organizers estimate they’ll need upwards of 500 people on site for the four days of competition. Tour officials readily concede that how and when everyone involved will be tested for the virus is still under discussion, as is what happens if one or more tests produce a bad result, or how follow up testing of local volunteers after the Tour has moved on to its next venue will be handled. As is true of seemingly every major step in restarting the American economy, widely and readily available testing is a prerequisite to the Tour’s return.

Then will come perhaps the biggest unknown of all. When the Tour rolls into the Quad Cities area along the border between Illinois and Iowa for July’s scheduled event at TPC Deere Run, will fans come out? That tournament, the John Deere Classic, will be the first to allow fans through the gates if all goes according to plan. But how many show up, and what if any restrictions are placed on them once they are at the course, will depend on factors far beyond the control of either the Tour or local organizers. And fans are important, especially for the latter. While the PGA Tour garners most of its revenue from television contracts, individual tournaments rely heavily on a combination of corporate hospitality, pro-am participants, and individual ticket sales to produce a positive bottom line. If those don’t materialize the Tour could quickly become a traveling circus bringing economic misery to one stop after another.

All of this for a sport that is arguably the most well-suited of all our games to resume play. Golf is played on a far larger field than any other sport, and there is virtually no need for the contestants to be in close proximity of one another. While habits are hard to break and there would doubtless be slipups, even the interactions between a player and his caddie could be managed while observing social distancing.

Yet so many questions remain. Perhaps visas will be issued, and volunteers will be eager to help, and tests will be ubiquitous, and when the time comes fans will once again be lining the fairways, at healthy six-foot intervals. But for now, it’s best to say that Jay Monahan doesn’t so much have a plan as an aspiration.

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