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Business as usual: PGA Tour’s ‘traveling circus’ setting standard for sports’ return

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NORTON, Mass. – Six months into this global pandemic, I finally got tested this week for COVID-19.

It’s part of the rules of engagement here at The Northern Trust: Credentialed media members traveling from outside the northeast (in my case, Florida) are required to return a negative test in order to cover the tournament. The president of the United States said there’s “nothing pleasant” about the testing experience, and, well, he was right – the Q-tip-style stick is shoved up a nostril, so deep that it’s less nasal swab than it is brain tickler. But it’s also quick and painless and easy, and 10 seconds of uncomfortableness is worth it for the knowledge that not everyone here is trying to kill me off with a cough. The results were returned in an hour, via a notification on an app (Not Detected), and a pink bracelet identifies those of us who were tested and deemed coronavirus-free.

Though new for me, this routine has become standard procedure for PGA Tour players, caddies and officials over the past three months. Arrive in the host city. Get tested in some vacant lot. And then go play golf, mostly in silence and largely without fanfare.

Other non-bubble sports have endured turbulent times while attempting to play amid a raging pandemic that has now taken the lives of at least 170,000 Americans.

College football coaches, administrators, commissioners and health experts seemingly all disagree on the best plan.

Major League Baseball has suffered through individual outbreaks and shutdowns.

The NFL has more than a billion rea$on$ to forge ahead, but its path is filled with potential pitfalls – just last week a rookie was cut after the team learned that he’d tried to sneak a female visitor into the hotel by dressing her up in uniform to disguise her as a player.

Tiger (68) feeling comfortable with 'Old Faithful'

Tiger (68) feeling comfortable with 'Old Faithful'

Other than one tense week at the Travelers – when commissioner Jay Monahan, as Ian Poulter said, “put the fear in everyone to make sure that we know this is real, we are in a pandemic, and we have to be super sensible” – the Tour’s restart has largely gone off without a hitch. Financially, the Tour has taken a hit without fans, pro-ams and hospitality suites, but inside the ropes, at least, it’s business as usual, with the TV product as compelling as before. This is Week 11 of the restart, and the events held still outnumber the confirmed positive player tests (eight). The doomsday scenario of the 54-hole leader testing positive and being forced to withdraw, thankfully, hasn’t come to pass.

To pull off this Herculean task required reliable, rapid testing. Tour leadership that could quickly pivot because of changing dynamics. And an accountable group of players and caddies who understood – and, most importantly, accepted – that personal sacrifice and discipline was the only way forward.

The PGA Tour often is described as a traveling circus, but the performers change each week. Every stop is a new city, with a new field, posing a new threat to the Tour’s safety plan. And yet, here they are, playing deep into the summer without much improvement on the health front nationwide.

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Current FedExCup points standings

“You’ve got so many opportunities to get compromised with COVID,” Poulter said, “but I think as a whole the Tour has done an exceptional job. I think it’s been a credit not just to the players and caddies, but all the staff, TV people, everybody that’s done their bit to have a safe environment for us all to get back to work. It’s important, right? We all have jobs out here, and it’s a credit to everyone.”

In the middle of the shutdown, with the news becoming more dire each day, Harris English thought there might not be another tournament the rest of the year. But the players returned, cautiously at first, then confident in the plan that was set forth. Even though English was one of the few players to test positive for COVID-19, he was also a prime example of how the Tour was quick to adapt. After sitting out two weeks, health experts determined English was likely no longer contagious, but he continued to test positive as the nasal swab kept picking up dead virus. So the Tour cleared him to compete, first as a single and then in a special COVID group of recovered players. English’s resurgent year continued; after beginning the season with conditional status, he now sits at No. 27 in the FedExCup, in position to earn a trip to the Tour Championship and, potentially, the 2021 Masters.

‘Ready to make a run at it’: English (64) on FedExCup playoffs

‘Ready to make a run at it’: English (64) on FedExCup playoffs

“I feel like we’ve truly set the standard for how to go about this,” English said. “Other sports can take a look at what we’ve done. Everybody is taking it seriously and done a great job, and we’re all glad to be where we are.”

And now they have a chance to be rewarded for their diligence. The first two legs of the FedExCup playoff run feature back-to-back $9.5 million purses. The Tour Championship will pay out a bonus pool of $60 million, with a whopping $15 million to the season-long winner. Though it may be difficult optics for multimillionaires to compete for so much cash amid the economic crunch nationally, who among us can blame them for taking advantage of the opportunity?

This year’s Cup doesn’t have the same sense of finality, with the new season beginning the following week and two majors still on the horizon. But a 36-event schedule still constitutes a complete and credible Tour season, and a deserving champion will be crowned at East Lake.

For this season unlike another, there shouldn’t be an asterisk on the achievement but rather an exclamation point. Not just because the players found a way to peak in unusual circumstances. But because they somehow reached the season’s finish line at all.