If the field for next week’s Charles Schwab Challenge is any indication, whatever hesitations top players see on the road back to competition are not enough to produce inaction.
The field at Colonial is the best it's ever been, since the world ranking started tracking such things, with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy headlining a marquee that includes second-ranked Jon Rahm, third-ranked Brooks Koepka, fourth-ranked Justin Thomas, fifth-ranked Dustin Johnson . . . you get the idea.
In fact, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood – who left the United States when play was halted in March and face a quarantine when they return – and Patrick Cantlay are the only top-10 players who won’t make the trip to Fort Worth, Texas.
To put that in context, the field at golf’s return will be the strongest this season according to the world ranking – stronger than the World Golf Championships in China and Mexico, stronger than Tiger Woods’ own event in Los Angeles and stronger than the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“It will be nice to get back out and play,” said McIlroy, who plans to play the first three events after the restart. “Obviously we're going to have to take as many precautions as possible to be able to put Tour events on again, but I think the PGA Tour has got a very robust plan in place.”
For most players, as evidenced by the strength of next week’s field, McIlroy’s sentiments go well beyond the company line. The circuit’s exhaustive blueprint, from the 37-page Health & Safety Plan to the 35-page Participant Resource Guide, seem to have checked some of the right boxes, but not all.
Although an admittedly small sample size, there are those who will take a wait-and-see approach.
“They are being fairly thorough, but my initial reaction was I was surprised it wasn't tighter than it is,” Scott told the Australian Associated Press last month. “What concerns me is dialogue that [the Tour] is hopeful of returning one- or two-hour test [results]. You'd want that in place before competing.”
While the Tour addressed that concern this week with news of a partnership with Sanford Health that will feature mobile laboratories that will make two- to four-hour test results possible, the Australian’s safety concerns went beyond testing.
“It seems an asymptomatic person could operate within a tournament. If they're not showing symptoms and I somehow picked it up inside the course and I'm disqualified I'm now self-isolating [in that city] for two weeks,” Scott said. “I'd be annoyed if that happened. I thought you'd start quite tight and loosen those protocols to normal if appropriate.”
Scott went on to explain he’s eyeing a potential return in time for the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in late July, partly as a tune-up for the PGA Championship the next week and partly to see how the Tour’s planned return fares.
It’s a common theme for some players. One top-25 player is skipping next week’s Charles Schwab Challenge because he doesn’t want to be a “guinea pig.”
“I have concerns. I don’t know where to start. The biggest thing once I’m onsite we will operate in a safe manner,” the player explained. “I don’t know how it’s going to pan out. Keeping competition to the standards we want competition to be without putting people in a difficult position. The biggest thing is getting to and from the events on planes.”
Golf's greatest strength at the moment is perhaps that the Tour doesn’t require universal acceptance of its plan to return to competition, unlike other sports like Major League Baseball and the NBA. The independent contractors, like Scott, can pick and choose when and where they want to compete.
It’s an à la carte solution that other sports don’t enjoy.
The dichotomy will likely become even more obvious after the first few Tour events depending on how things unfold. Few positive tests – it’s probably unrealistic to contemplate a scenario where no one tests positive, at least in the short term – along with a competition that everyone agrees feels like a competition would set the tone for the rest of the season. But there are still concerns.
The Travelers Championship, which is scheduled to be the third event back, is relatively close to New York City, which is still considered a hotbed for the pandemic.
“I’d have to think about [playing the Travelers Championship],” said Lucas Glover, who is planning to play the first two events back. “There’s going to be risks everywhere we play but being that close to New York would be something that I’d have to think about.”
Despite a wildly high degree of difficulty, the Tour has created a plan that the vast majority of players are comfortable with, which is even more impressive when considered with the independent contractor context. No plan, however, is going to be perfect nor will any plan address everyone’s concerns.
Next week’s field proves that a majority of players, but not all, are comfortable enough to get back to work. Whether that level of comfort remains depends on how that plan unfolds.