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Florida mini-tour continues during COVID-19 pandemic, but with extreme safety measures

West Florida Golf Tour
Christian Bartolacci/WFGT

After spending days meticulously planning how to run a golf tournament during a global pandemic, Christian Bartolacci nearly saw his thorough efforts upended by Mother Nature.

Bartolacci is the executive director of the West Florida Golf Tour, a barebones developmental circuit that normally wouldn’t garner much attention. But that dynamic changes when tours around the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and you’re one of the few circuits in the country still operating.

With millions of Americans under orders to shelter in place and practice social distancing, the WFGT conducted an 18-hole event called the “Ritz Carlton Series 4” Monday in Bradenton, Florida. Bartolacci had taken significant measures to ensure the safety of his players as coronavirus cases in Florida and around the country continue to spiral. He felt good about his preparations – until he arrived at a course blanketed in a thick layer of fog.

“We had an hour fog delay, which threw a little wrench into stuff,” Bartolacci told GolfChannel.com. “My whole goal was to get guys away from each other, so that hour delay didn’t help.”

A 38-year-old PGA professional, Bartolacci has been at the helm of WFGT operations since its launch in February 2010. In the years since, they’ve hosted events that included a number of past and future PGA Tour and LPGA winners: Daniel Chopra is a regular, while Lee Janzen, Emiliano Grillo and Ted Potter, Jr., have all made appearances. So, too, has Brittany Lincicome, and earlier this month another Solheim Cupper, Sandra Gal, teed it up in an event while trying to rehab from an injury.

Even U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland cashed a $75 check in his lone WFGT start, shooting a 73 in the 2010 Prudential Palms Championship. He went on to win his first PGA Tour event 11 months later.

The WFGT operates year-round, with both summer and winter schedules boasting one-day and multi-round events. It often courts players with Korn Ferry Tour, Mackenzie Tour or PGA Tour Latinoamerica status who need a place to stay sharp in between starts.

“The best analogy to explain it is, I’m a gym membership where at the end of each month, instead of paying you can actually get some money back,” Bartolacci explained. “But we’re here for reps. That’s all we’re here for. We’re trying to get you to the next level so you can play for money when it really matters.”

West Florida Golf Tour
Christian Bartolacci/WFGT

So while the sports world cratered this month as coronavirus concerns mounted, Bartolacci considered his options. Operating margins aren’t exactly robust in the mini-tour industry, but he started by canceling all of his upcoming multi-day events – including a 75-player major with increased entry fees. He kept alive the possibility of holding a series of weekly one-day events if the circumstances were right.

But with each passing day, more businesses temporarily shuttered and more government officials advised citizens to stay at home. Many golf courses across the country slowed or suspended operations. So the notion of holding a tournament of any sort in the middle of unprecedented circumstances was difficult to decide.

“I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wrestle with it,” Bartolacci said. “At the end of the day, it was a tough one for me, but I decided to do it knowing not everyone would be on board.”

Indeed, not everyone was on board. Bartolacci admitted that he has received criticism on social media from across the country for his decision to maintain operations, one that likely would have gone unnoticed if other larger circuits were still competing.

“Unfortunately, you’re under a microscope now,” he said. “I guess guys are focused on it a little bit more when they’re in Maine or whatever, haven’t left their house in eight days and they’re looking at us playing golf and saying we’re being irresponsible.”

The question Bartolacci sought to answer is the same one staring at tournament directors on mini-tours around the country: Is there a safe way to play competitive golf right now?

The required infrastructure for most larger circuits means the answer is no. There are too many people involved, too many touch points to conduct a large-scale event with full confidence in health and safety measures. But Bartolacci operates on a shoestring budget and with the manpower to match; his event required one person to greet players, one starter on the first tee and one person in scoring. And he filled two of those three roles himself.

In devising a one-day event unlike any other, he unveiled a wide array of new rules and procedures in response to coronavirus concerns. First, he limited the field, offering only 50 spots instead of the usual 75-80 this time of year. He ensured the host club, Ritz-Carlton Members Club, would be closed so there would be no other foot traffic.

He played the event in twosomes instead of threesomes, giving each player his own cart, which was sanitized the night before by resort staff. All scorecards and pin sheets were pre-deposited into each cart rather than picked up by players at registration. Entry fees were pre-paid, avoiding any physical handling of cash or credit cards, and Bartolacci greeted each player with Lysol disinfectant wipes upon arrival “for peace of mind.”

Practice bays on the driving range were spread farther apart to align with social distancing requirements, and it was players-only on property – no caddies or spectators allowed. Once on the course, players were supplied a towel they could use for handling the flagstick. Bunker rakes were removed, and a local rule was added to afford players a free drop as ground under repair if their ball came to rest in an area of a bunker that was not raked.

At no point did players make physical contact with each other, even in scoring. After the round, playing partners sat in chairs 6 feet apart at a spartan scoring table with a bottle of hand sanitizer on it. Rather than exchange scorecards, all scores were relayed verbally to Bartolacci and input into a computer.

West Florida Golf Tour
Christian Bartolacci/WFGT

“It was awesome. It was probably one of the safest, cleanest places you’ll ever be,” said Jimmy Stanger, who tied for third after shooting 68. “Literally never went within 6 feet of anyone, other than maybe around the hole when we made our putts. Just felt a very healthy way to do it. It was a good day to get outside and fortunately still have a job.”

Even among a mini-tour audience with an insatiable appetite for competition, coronavirus has become an issue. Bartolacci revealed that he received multiple late withdrawals, including one from a player who lives with his grandmother and didn’t want to risk possibly infecting her with a disease that disproportionately impacts the elderly. Another player recently had dinner with a family member who subsequently tested positive and, while asymptomatic himself, the player didn’t want to unwittingly put his fellow competitors at risk.

But despite a handful of defections, Bartolacci’s event still delivered a stronger than usual field given that so many touring pros have so few playing options at the moment. He shared that the roster included a handful of players with Korn Ferry Tour status for 2020, one of whom told Bartolacci that he recently inquired about getting a job stocking shelves at night for Lowe’s in order to help make ends meet.

Among that Korn Ferry group is Stanger, a 25-year-old who is fully exempt this season and has already made $14,451 in six starts. While his background in finance and lack of dependents will help him weather the current storm more easily than some of his peers, he’s not immune to the math of mini-tour life. After dropping $260 on the one-day entry fee he got back a check for $445, barely scraping a profit even though only two players beat him.

But that financial reality didn’t damper his overall experience.

“It was super fun, and at the same time we got to go out and compete against a lot of good golfers for money,” Stanger said. “I hope they have as many of these as possible, because it was probably healthier than being in my apartment building all day.”

Granted, the WFGT isn’t the only game in town right now. Across the state in Palatka, the 63rd Azalea Amateur concluded Sunday. The 54-hole event featured a field of more than 100 players, and an official at Palatka Golf Club confirmed to GolfChannel.com that some social distancing measures were taken, including the removal of bunker rakes and on-course coolers. Scorecards were dropped into a basket after play and removed by staff members wearing gloves.

But unlike the WFGT event, spectators were allowed on the course after the final group teed off and there were instances where groups, played in threesomes, included two players in a single cart.

There’s also mini-tour golf elsewhere in Florida this week, as the Minor League Golf Tour began a 36-hole event Monday in Palm City. That 46-man field includes Chase Koepka and is currently paced by former University of Texas product Gavin Hall, who opened with 62. The Cactus Tour, an all-female circuit that last week held an event won by LPGA major champ Anna Nordqvist, is expected to begin a 54-hole tournament in Arizona on Wednesday.

The MLGT event boasts a purse of more than $13,000, which is nearly twice the $6,800 that WFGT players split Monday in Bradenton. Bartolacci’s event ended with a clear champion, as 25-year-old Jordan Miller shot an 8-under 64 to win by three shots. Miller is a circuit regular, having already played in six WFGT events this year. After anteing up his entry fee, he pocketed $2,020 – an extra Andrew Jackson was slipped in since the $500 skins side pot was split when no skins were won.

Where things go from here remains to be seen. Bartolacci has tabled all of his multi-day events for the rest of the season, and he holds out hope that he can continue holding 18-hole Monday events through the end of April under the right conditions. But he also realizes that a shelter order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could effectively shut him down at any moment.

Through it all, he’s keeping the larger situation in mind. Bartolacci pledged to donate half of his net proceeds from Monday’s event to a local charity assisting other small businesses impacted by the recent economic shutdown. And while he hopes to have another $2,000 check to offer to a winner next week, he’ll sleep well with the belief that he took all possible precautions to ensure a safe experience under unimaginable circumstances.

“I will not run an event unless I can run it the way I did today,” he said. “Because I feel that’s the only responsible way to do it.”