Fall 2020

The PGA Tour and COVID-19


By Robert James


Golf, Covid-19 style, is both exhilarating and excruciating.


Exhilarating, because it is so good to have the game back after months of inactivity due to the coronavirus pandemic. Excruciating because every time you look out onto a golf course, it is a reminder if the situation we continue to face.


Golf is a perfect sport in pandemic life, but pro golf can’t hide what is going on the world.


Beautiful courses. The top-ranked players in the world. And silence. Or at least near silence.


It is so odd to look out onto these fields of play and see nobody else there to watch.


And some two months into the revised schedule, players find it peculiar, but also somewhat reassuring, that nobody is there to watch.


“When would I feel comfortable when there are fans back on the golf course? I think when there’s less of a chance of people getting sick, I guess,” said Rory McIlroy, who has played a heavy schedule since golf returned in June. “And whether they discover more with the virus or there’s different treatments, whether that’s a vaccine or other treatments.


“So I don’t know. Out here I feel pretty safe. We get tested multiple times a week, and inside the bubble I think you can limit your exposure as much as you can. But it’s hard.


Whether it’s a vaccination or whether it’s something where there’s a breakthrough and we know a little bit more about what’s going on with the virus, but I probably can’t give you a definitive answer about when I would be comfortable with crowds again. And that is the golf world today as we know it. No crowds, and no ability to predict when they would return.


Oh, there were high hopes back in April when a new schedule was plotted and three of the four majors were rescheduled, with the British Open being canceled. The PGA Championship took an early August date, with the U.S. Open going in September and the Masters in November.


The folks at Augusta National clearly believed they had bought themselves enough time to assure a full house at a rescheduled Masters. But even that is unclear now. The idea at first was to stage the first four events without spectators and the PGA Tour did that with minor blips. There was concern in the third week at the Travelers Championship when a couple of caddies tested positive, but commissioner Jay Monahan simply strengthened some of the protocols and warned all that diligence in these unprecedented times was necessary.


“As we look at where we are now, I think we all need to remind ourselves that we’re learning to live with this virus, and we all need to remind ourselves that we’re all learning to live with this virus, and we all need to learn to live with this virus, both as individuals, as family members and certainly within our businesses,” Monahan said. “It’s pretty clear that this virus isn’t going anywhere.” Amid concerns that things might get out of control, the PGA Tour got them under control.


It is not operating in a bubble like the NBA and the NHL. Players are allowed to travel freely between tournaments. They can go home if they miss the cut. They are not required to stay in a specific hotel.


But they are given a COVID-19 test prior to departure for a tournament if they take a week, and again upon arrival. Those who take the tour-sponsored charter between events must pass a test before being allowed on the plane, and again at the tour site.


Prior to the PGA Championship, there had been just 10 reported cases on the PGA Tour among players and caddies. Only seven players had tested positive. Nick Watney was the first, and he had to self-isolate in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for 10 days. We’ve learned about the virus since, and the CDC has said those who are no longer symptomatic after 10 days are highly unlikely to be contagious.


It is possible that other players or caddies tested positive and we didn’t know it. Maybe they got the virus at home, perhaps they felt symptoms coming on and left before the tour could conduct a test. No matter, there was no spread, and the tour did well to educate and minimize problems. For that, all should be commended.


“People have called it like this coronavirus fatigue or whatever, where people could become a little more complacent or sloppy,” McIlroy said. “But again, most guys out here, their career really matters to them, and they’re going to do everything they can to make sure that they’re safe and the people that they’re coming in contact with are safe.”


From a media standpoint, the vibe is different. No longer can reporters simply approach players for interviews. Pre-tournament and post-round interviews are conducted via computer hook up, with questions asked and answered remotely – even for those on site. For those players requested for TV interviews, they are asked questions from afar. It is all part of a system meant to keep everyone as safe as possible.


The plan to have spectators at the Memorial Tournament – the sixth event of the restart – was scrapped as coronavirus cases spiked around the country. The tournament had gone to considerable expense to try and have a limited number on site, only to be told by the PGA Tour a week out that it wouldn’t work. Why? Because the system, to a large degree, was working. Why mess with success? Subsequently, other tournaments announced no spectators through the FedEx Cup playoffs. The U.S. Open in September will not have them. And now the Masters is on the clock.


It’s a new world. And while it’s great to have golf back, it sure is an eerie place to be at times. “Yeah, it’s very strange,” said Webb Simpson. “I think it’s also more strange that we’re going to have seven majors in 13 months. We’ve experienced no fans, and that’s been very unusual. And we’re starting to get used to it. At majors we’re used to tens of thousands lining the fairways 10 rows deep. We’re used to every major being sold out long in advance.


“If we have no fans, it won’t feel like a normal major. As much as we want it to, I don’t think it will.”



Fall 2020