Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2020

Now On The Tee, The PGA Tour

Ninety-one days after the last competition round on the PGA Tour, members of golf’s preeminent men’s tour finally teed it up again on Thursday. The setting was at once familiar and foreign. Colonial Country Club sits on the south bank of one of the Trinity River’s four forks, and has hosted a PGA Tour event for nearly three-quarters of a century. Veteran pros could likely find their way around the links blindfolded. But an integral part of all those prior tournaments was a large crowd of golf fans, thousands of spectators roaming the grounds and cheering on their favorite players. This week, the event currently named the Charles Schwab Challenge – though it will always be simply “The Colonial” to both participants and fans – is being played without paying spectators, as will the next four tournaments on the Tour’s schedule, in Hilton Head, Cromwell Connecticut, Detroit, and Dublin Ohio.

Perhaps the difference wasn’t all that noticeable when Ryan Palmer, Brian Harman and Bill Haas marked the official return of the PGA Tour as the first group off #1 shortly before 7:00 a.m. Between them the three have just a pair of Tour wins in the last five years, and even avid golf fans aren’t likely to be on the course in numbers at that hour on a Thursday morning. But about three hours later, when the threesome of Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau – all fan favorites – were making the turn after completing their first nine, the absence of even polite applause, much less roars for great shots and groans for near misses, was the surest sign that while the PGA Tour may be back, it is definitely not business as usual.

Beyond the absence of fans, the Tour’s protocols include testing of players, caddies, tournament officials and volunteers at the beginning of the week, and an effort to create a “bubble” in which those involved with the event will stay. The usual Tuesday and Wednesday pro-am rounds, like the now empty hospitality tents a key revenue source for the organizers of every Tour stop, are gone for the foreseeable future. The Tour is also making a charter jet available for travel from one tournament to the next. Once on the course golfers and their caddies have been asked to maintain social distancing, not just from other members of their group but from each other.

Despite all the precautions, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan would be more suitably located at one of the newly reopened Las Vegas casinos than at either Colonial or Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Florida. For not just this week, but next at Harbour Town and the following at TPC River Highlands, and on to Detroit Country Club and then Muirfield Village, Monahan is engaged in a high stakes roll of the dice, betting that a sport that crisscrosses the country week after week can avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons, as a source of coronavirus spread. The gamble is not just because of the traveling road show nature of professional golf, perhaps not even primarily so. Certainly the restrictions in place at Colonial, which will be replicated in the weeks that follow, appear to do as much as can reasonably be expected to make the acreage on which the tournament is played a safe place.

But unlike say the NBA, which plans to create a 24/7 bubble for players at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, Monahan’s players are not employees of his “league.” Golfers are independent contractors, bound to the PGA Tour by rules about the number of events each must play and ensured of continuing membership based on earnings, but still largely free to decide whether to play or not on any given week, and how to comport themselves while at a tournament. So it was no big surprise when numerous players were seen walking the streets of downtown Fort Worth earlier this week, ignoring the Tour’s guidelines that would have had them staying in their hotel. And the Tour can do nothing to control what any player does at home when he chooses to skip that week’s tournament.

It’s also true that ingrained habits are hard to break. Several Tour pros have admitted that while they understand the importance of the social distancing guidelines in place during tournament play, they fully expect the familiar pattern of close contact with their caddie to win out at some point during a round. The ways in which a professional golfer relies on his or her caddie are beyond count, and most are done by rote. Dustin Johnson may have amused fans watching the broadcast of the recent TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition when he walked off a tee without his golf bag and had to run back to retrieve it, but he was really just doing what came naturally.

If this week and the four to follow go well, then the Memorial Tournament, the second of back-to-back events at Muirfield Village Golf Club, has received the okay from Ohio state health officials to admit roughly twenty percent of its typical daily attendance. With the PGA Tour one of the first major sports to return to action, the success of the restart will potentially impact not just whether golf is played in front of live audiences at some point this year, but also how other sports reopen.

A basic concept of golf course design is the risk-reward hole. It’s a hole that gives the player two options. One is comparatively safe but offers little reward. Perhaps a par-5 presents a tee shot out to a broad fairway, but on a line that lengthens the hole and eliminates any hope of reaching the green in two. The other entices the player with great reward but carries the potential for disaster. From that same tee one can see a distant landing area on a much more direct line to the flag, but it’s reachable only by fading one’s tee ball around some trees and carrying the expanse of a water hazard.

Faced with that choice, each golfer must weigh the tradeoff of risk and reward, and decide which shot is the right one. When it comes to restarting the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan is definitely going for it. But the biggest risk for the commissioner isn’t that his shot might wind up in the water, it’s that he isn’t even the one swinging the club.

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