How the PGA Tour got through a pandemic and finished its season

ATLANTA — Nobody is popping champagne or throwing a party. It wouldn’t be appropriate in this climate. But if the PGA Tour wants to quietly crack a collective smile and celebrate a job well done, it would seem more than reasonable.

The PGA Tour concluded its 2019-20 season on Monday at the Tour Championship and never suffered a coronavirus calamity through three months of tournaments following the pandemic shutdown.

There were a few rough patches, and anyone who thought this would be easy is either naïve or lying.

But while other sports competing outside of a coronavirus pandemic bubble — namely Major League Baseball and college football — had myriad challenges, golf and the PGA Tour (as well as the European Tour, which started later and with stricter guidelines) managed to make it to this point with no interruptions, while pushing ahead into a new season this week at the Safeway Open.

“I think it’s a huge deal that honestly hasn’t been made a big-enough deal,” said Webb Simpson, who won the RBC Heritage, the second tournament back, before dealing with his own family COVID-19 scare, which turned out to be a false alarm. “I think you see the other leagues, and they’re having all sorts of issues with the coronavirus. It seems like so many decisions have been in limbo, the fans not knowing what to expect, which teams are sitting out.

“Now I know things are different with us, less players than typical other leagues might have, but they’ve done a phenomenal job. Our numbers are so shockingly low compared to other organizations or groups of people, and I never thought that we’d have this smooth of a process.”

The PGA Tour played 14 tournaments over a period of 13 weeks starting in mid-June with the Charles Schwab Challenge through the Tour Championship.

The tour said it conducted 3,652 on-site tests of players and caddies over that period, with seven players and four caddies testing positive for COVID-19. It also reported that three players tested positive after taking in-home tests, although total numbers of tests were not announced. The PGA Tour went the last five weeks without a positive test.

Given the amount of travel and the number of different people involved, it is an impressive achievement in dealing with a virus that often spreads unknowingly. Even if there were players who avoided tour testing and contracted the virus at home, thus not being announced, their efforts helped to contain any issues that could have led to bigger problems.

The tour played in 12 different states with various rules, and while it offered a charter flight between events and a specific hotel at each tournament, players were allowed to travel on their own and find their own accommodations.

“I was confident that we had the right plan, but I was uncertain as to whether or not, like everybody else, you’d be able to get to this point,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “Our confidence was shaken in those first couple weeks with a few incidents and situations, but we expected that to happen. That’s the nature of what we were dealing with.”

The tour contracted with Sanford Health to conduct weekly COVID-19 testing, and it made adjustments along the way.

When Nick Watney became the first player to test positive at the RBC Heritage in June, he was required to self-quarantine in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for a minimum of 10 days before he was permitted to travel home. He was also paid a $100,000 stipend by the PGA Tour.

The tour adjusted its stipend rules to say that any player who did not pretest at home prior to traveling to a tournament site or did not follow the various protocols put in place would not be eligible for a stipend if there was a positive test. It also required those who take the charter to test prior to boarding day as well as once arriving at the tournament site.

And when — at the time — there was what appeared to be a big spike the week of the Travelers Championship as a player and two caddies tested positive — and three others players withdrew for fear of having been in contact with those who were positive, Monahan stepped in.

He conducted a news conference that week, the third tournament back, in which he stressed that all involved in the process needed to take personal responsibility for their actions in order for the PGA Tour to continue.

“I think we all need to remind ourselves that we’re 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,” he said then. “It’s pretty clear that this virus isn’t going anywhere.”

Since that time, it adjusted protocols to allow players — according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines — to return to competition if they had gone 10 days or more from the outset of competition and at least one day without a fever, even if they continued to test positive. After separating those players into their own groups, it dropped that stipulation.

It also changed its rules to not allow players on golf course property until their COVID-19 tests were returned negative.

Since Monahan’s Travelers news conference, there have been just five players and two caddies who tested positive on site, and none since the Barbasol Championship the week prior to the PGA Championship in early August.

“I don’t think there’s really a word that I could say to describe how impressive it is,” said Justin Thomas, who on social media was critical of what he saw in Hilton Head Island during for the second event back when he noticed the abundance of people in the area who were not following the various protocols, calling it a “zoo.”

“The tour had a great plan in place, but importantly, they stuck to it and we stuck to it,” he said. “Everybody did everything they could. We obviously had some little things kind of go on there at the beginning of the restart, but it was a team effort.

“It’s not like Commissioner Monahan could just say, “Alright guys, everyone needs to do this and then it’s done, it’s going to happen.’ Everyone needs to do their part, and that includes the tour officials, the staff, the workers on the grounds of the tournaments, the caddies, the players, the people in the bubble, the trainers, the physios.

“You can’t do stuff that’s going to benefit you that could jeopardize the entire tour, and everyone has done an unbelievable job.”

That might be the most impressive part of the entire story to this point. It is one thing to have a plan, put forth rules, warn about possible penalties. It’s quite another for 150-plus players and their caddies to all be diligent enough not only at tour sites but when traveling and heading to their homes to be around loved ones and friends.

Even the most cautious of people could still get unlucky and contract the coronavirus, which seemed to be the case with Watney, who suffered the indignity of being the first — and had absolutely no idea how he had contracted COVID-19.

There was also some concern. Prominent international players such as Adam Scott and Tommy Fleetwood delayed their return to competition. Lee Westwood, who was eligible for the PGA Championship, never left the United Kingdom and played a few events in the European Tour’s restart. Francesco Molinari, the 2018 Open champion, has yet to return.

Still, golf looks downright perfect compared to baseball, which so far has had to reschedule or postpone more than 40 games, with 16 teams impacted. Clearly, there are big differences, and team sports have other issues to deal with when it comes to clubhouses, travel and a game that will put competitors in close proximity.

But the PGA Tour had no postponements. One tournament, the John Deere Classic, canceled this year, but the tour hustled to find a sponsor, Workday, which stepped in to play an event at Muirfield Village the week prior to the Tour Championship. That was the only change in the revised schedule that was announced in late April.

“I’m not going to lie, pretty much 20% of the tests were positive countrywide, almost worldwide, and with how many sports were having trouble, I was certain, especially after Harbour Town … nobody should be surprised if one week we show up and there’s 30 positives,” Jon Rahm said. “And I’m shocked that we got [the spike at the Travelers] and since then you have very few cases. Sometimes it’s even false positives that test negative after the fact as well.

“Again, I think we can congratulate each other and everybody else for the good job we’ve done, because I am surprised we’ve been able to go on without problems.”

The tour is still maintaining a cautious approach, although it is easing some restrictions. Players are allowed to invite a family member to tournaments. Some of the title sponsors and corporate sponsors can bring a small number of guests to socially-distanced hospitality venues on site.

In three weeks, in the Dominican Republic, the tour will stage its first Wednesday pro-am since the restart and hopes to continue that practice at its events, given that is a significant revenue source for the nonprofit organizations that are established in local markets to run the events.

The next step will be allowing spectators. The Memorial Tournament had plans to do so in July, and those were scrapped a week before the event began. At the time, the tour felt it was best to not mess with a good thing.

That attitude is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future. The No. 1 priority was to get golf back safely. Although it is financially draining, the tour can go about its business without spectators because of the significant income it derives from title sponsors and television rights.

Testing will undoubtedly continue into the new year, and the number of people allowed on site will be limited. When fans are permitted, it will be small.

It’s been 13 weeks of relatively painless tournament golf after a very (financially) painful 13-week shutdown. That’s six months since the Players Championship was halted after just one round.

Whether fans fill the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in another six months is impossible to determine at this point, but there is no reason there cannot be a full slate of golf between now and then.

“I think it’s awesome there hasn’t been any surprises,” said Xander Schauffele. “I think we’re all very blessed, and all the players are just happy to compete.”

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