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Approaching two years since COVID shutdown, PGA Tour showing some normalcy again

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ORLANDO, Fla. – It was a perfect spring day in central Florida as Billy Horschel made his way down a long line of autograph seekers signing every flag, hat and golf ball that was shoved in his direction.

“I’m going to sign whatever someone hands me and then I’m going to go and wash my hands,” Horschel shrugged when asked if he had any health concerns interacting with fans. It was March 8, 2020.

Five days later everything changed.

On that perfect Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, there were still too many unknowns for Horschel when it came to COVID-19. The NBA was still playing games and college basketball was forging ahead to March Madness. At the time the coronavirus was a story on the evening news, not a topic of conversation on the PGA Tour.

Horschel went on to explain that he intended to continue signing autographs and interacting with fans. Even the traditional post-round handshake was not something he was worried about.

Two years, a crippling shutdown and millions of tests and vaccinations later Horschel, as well as the majority of Tour players, remain defiant.

“Still doesn’t matter,” Horschel said this week at Bay Hill. “We all know the stats, we all know the data, this might be too simplistic but I think you have to live your life and I think you can be too safe in life, too scared of things in life. I don’t want to be that way.”

Horschel admits that things have changed.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

The ’20 Arnold Palmer Invitational was the final Tour event before the pandemic halted the Tour schedule. After a surreal opening round at the next week’s Players Championship officials joined every other sports league in stopping play.

Revisiting that Sunday at Bay Hill offers a glimpse into how quickly and unexpectedly things unraveled.

Zach Johnson wrapped up that week at Bay Hill walking the same autograph line as Horschel. Despite official warnings from the Tour, he did what he’d always done – sign autographs, take pictures and interact with fans. He had no plan or interest in changing.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said in ’20.

As he made his way down a similar autograph line this week at Bay Hill Johnson was reminded of his comments, “Wow,” he laughed.

The Tour has been inching its way back to whatever qualifies as normal in the age of COVID-19 with full houses this year at the WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational, although the latter required a proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test for entry.

Highlights: Arnold Palmer Invitational, Round 3

Highlights: Arnold Palmer Invitational, Round 3

With even fewer state and local restrictions the Florida swing is starting to feel even more like business as usual.

“I love that we are getting back to some semblance of normalcy. I know it’s not normal, but we have got to figure out a way to live with this. We have to get back to social interaction because I think it’s healthy,” Johnson said. “It changed for a period but now I think we’re coming back. I don’t want to get my hopes up entirely, but I think we’re coming back.”

Signing autographs was initially banned by the Tour when the circuit restarted its schedule in June ’20 and officials started a new policy this year “with a primary focus on young fans,” according to a memo sent to players late last year, and signing only in designated areas.

That evolution dovetails with how player’s thoughts on fan interaction have changed with the times. When fans started returning to the course in limited numbers in 2021 players attempted to maintain at least the allusion of a bubble, but those barriers eventually fell away.

“When it happened there wasn’t a lot of data so you were a little more protective at first, but once a little more information, more data, more research, then you can make a more educated decision,” Horschel said. 

“The majority of the people in this world are getting back to what life was like before COVID, others still want to wear masks and wipe everything down, that’s their own choice, but that’s not me.”

Fowler was among the defiant two years ago who innocently dug in against the coming pandemic tide. As one of the game’s most popular and engaging players, the aftermath of the shutdown was difficult to navigate but last week’s Honda Classic felt familiar.

“I went with staying safe and once [his daughter] was born I was definitely careful before that and until she got her shots, but signing, taking pictures, last week I was doing that after the round every day,” Fowler said.

There was one player on that Sunday in ’20 at Bay Hill who seemed to sense what was coming. Although Graeme McDowell said he’d continue to engage with fans and sign autographs he offered an ominous warning: “It is going to affect our job in the next six months in some way, shape or form, you’d imagine. I just hope it doesn’t affect things too heavily,” he cautioned.

Reminded of his prediction Saturday at Bay Hill, McDowell took a moment to consider how far the Tour has come since then: “I don’t remember being that smart,” he laughed, “little did we know. Little did we know."