Testing time as top-class field prepare to embrace new normal at Colonial
Stringent protocols – but no spectators – in place for the return of the PGA Tour
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm will be among the five top-ranked players in the world to play in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images
A glimpse into the future came at the Zozo Championship in Japan last October. Typhoon Bualoi had left a trail of destruction in its wake and a decision was made to play the second round, delayed until the Saturday after Friday’s washout, behind closed doors at Narashino Country Club.
As Tiger Woods observed at the time of playing in silence with no fans: “When you make a putt and you kind of put your hand up, you’re like, ‘hmmm, don’t really need to put your hand up because there’s no one clapping’.”
The future is nearly upon us, and the return of the PGA Tour with the staging of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday will again have players competing in silence with no adulation or even an idiotic shout of, “Mashed Potatoes!”
There will be no crowds, just one of the number of measures adopted to facilitate professional tour golf’s return as it takes its place at the vanguard of sport’s fightback to the coronavirus.
The Colonial tournament is one which grasps the history of professional golf close to its bosom. There’s a wall of champions by the first tee – names which include the inaugural winner Ben Hogan in 1946, and which also feature Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price, Sergio Garcia among subsequent winners – while a Scottish tartan jacket is placed on the winner each year as a hat-tip to the game’s origins. This time, though, the tournament will be unlike any other in its history.
An agreement from the players’ to undergo testing for Covid-19 has enabled the PGA Tour’s restart, having shuddered to a dramatic halt after the first round of The Players at Sawgrass in March.
Testing is just a part of the deal, with the professional circuit’s return stateside laid out coldly in a 37-page plan that has put health and safety rather than birdies and pars as the main factors.
This is a changed golfing world for those professionals returning to tour life. Even the traditional player-caddie relationship will be kept apart by social distancing, while there will be no fist-bumps or high-fives or hugs or handshakes or anything of the kind allowed as celebratory physical interaction is forbidden.
When Rory McIlroy was asked at Sawgrass when he’d be comfortable returning to play golf, his response was straightforward. “Whenever the powers that be say it’s safe to do so,” he replied.
Some three months later, that time has come; but only with the sort of caveats never before known as the PGA Tour put stringent safety precautions in place to facilitate the sport’s return, with the Colonial kicking off a run of four tournaments behind closed doors that will also take in the RBC Heritage, the Travelers and the Rocket Mortgage Classic as the circuit moves from Texas to South Carolina to Connecticut to Michigan in that timeframe.
The PGA Tour has chartered flights from one venue to the next for players and caddies, while also recommending a designated hotel at each stop with a recommendation for room service to limit community interaction.
In a letter to all players in advance of the season’s restart, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, wrote: “Without a vaccine, we know that we cannot mitigate all risk whether at work or in our daily lives. However, the plan we are implementing is designed to reduce the risk as much as possible . . . we all look forward to a return to normalcy, and that day will come. In the meantime, we ask you embrace the necessary measures [in the document] for the safety of everyone in our PGA Tour family.”
The new reality will see players and caddies tested on registering at tournaments with results delivered within 24 hours. Players and caddies will have access to the course and practice facilities before the results come back but, only after a negative test result has been delivered by a ping to an app on their phone, will they get access to the clubhouse or locker rooms. In this new world, a wristband or lanyard will be required for such access.
Additionally, players, caddies, officials and site volunteers will undergo daily temperature screening and be required to undergo questionnaires on any possible symptoms.
Any player or caddie testing positive during a tournament will be quarantined and provided with medical care as part of the PGA Tour’s “disinfecting/decontaminating” response measures while tracking and tracing will also be carried out.
Charley Hoffman, the Player Advisory Council Chairman who has been knee-deep in discussions in recent weeks as return-to-play protocols were considered, admitted in a teleconference call: “We wouldn’t have gone through with this if we hadn’t had the consent from the players. I can say that every single player we have talked to is comfortable how this [the plan] was laid out. I’m not saying we’re bullet-proof, by any means. This is serious and this is real. But we’re lucky to be in a sport where we don’t have to be in close contact with your competitors.”
For those players turning up at the famed Colonial, a course known as Hogan’s Alley for its association with the legendary Ben Hogan who won the inaugural staging in the first of five title wins in the tournament, the rules of engagement will be different from the week-in, week-out of how it used to be before Covid-19. Among them are three Irish players: McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell.
For example, there will be no large gatherings on the driving range, with players restricted to being accompanied by their caddie and one other person (be it coach or agent) and social distancing part and parcel of the deal.
There will also be restrictions too on manufacturing representatives accessing the range, so that any regripping or tweaking of lofts will be carried out after hours with the clubs returned – and put through a sanitation process – in time for use by players the next day.
When it comes to play itself, players must retrieve their own golf balls from the hole, while caddies will be required to clean rakes and flagsticks. As Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s chief tournament and competitions officer put it, “We will have constant reminders [about protocols]. We’re confident that they understand the significant responsibility they carry in making our return very successful.”
The absence of grandstands and spectators will make for a surreal atmosphere. But at least the television cameras will be there to capture the action with all five of the top-ranked players in the world – McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson – included in the field which has a prize fund of $7.5million to reboot the season.
And when it is all over, the players will travel on to Hilton Head, most in a specially chartered PGA Tour plane, and continue with the new normal.