It’s a brave new world for PGA Tour players, a notion reinforced by the circuit’s unveiling Wednesday of a 37-page Health & Safety Plan in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In presenting this new normal, the Tour has listed the do’s and don’ts, and will’s and won’ts for the foreseeable future, covering every conceivable facet of Tour life from at-home testing to traveling to lodging to on-site access to tournament rounds.
So, what will the week look like for a Tour player who wants to tee it up June 11 at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas?
Something like this:
BEFORE THE TOURNAMENT
There’s work to do before I even think about heading to Texas for the resumption of the season. First, the Tour has sent both me and my caddie a pre-travel screening for the coronavirus, so I know whether it’s even safe for us to go. To be honest, I feel for some of my mates in the UK – not only did they have to take an at-home test, but because of the 14-day mandatory quarantine that’s still in place for those entering the States, they’ve already been in town since May 25!
Assuming our tests come back negative, I need to tell the Tour seven days in advance of each tournament which support personnel I want permitted on-site with me. No doubt, my entourage will have to be scaled back, but at least I’ll be able to quiet the outside noise. I’d think this is particularly disconcerting news for Bryson and his traveling posse.
As for transportation to get there, well, I’m on my own. No NetJets sponsorship here. Now I just hope they haven’t sold the middle seat next to me ...
After landing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and picking up my sterilized rental car, I now need to undergo three layers of screening: a RT PCR nasal swab or saliva test; a temperature reading; and a questionnaire.
Where am I taking these tests? Most likely at a designated hotel for us players and our caddies. That’s right, we’re all going to be holed up together, except for the Jason Days of the world who travel by RV, or the stars who insist on staying in rental homes that now must be approved by the Tour. The recommendation is that we stay in a host hotel, to create a controlled environment.
I’m fine with that, because, hey, they’re not putting us up in some Rat Roof Inn. Likely, it’ll be a full-service joint, so we don’t have to leave the property. After all, we still need to abide by those safer-at-home guidelines: Though room service and takeout are permitted, both me and my caddie are prohibited from dining in at a restaurant or bar. (So, um, they better stock the mini-fridges!)
Arriving at Colonial, all I need to complete are a questionnaire and daily temperature check, then I’m free to begin my work – as long as I don’t register a fever over 100.4. That initial nasal/saliva test I took upon arrival takes 24 to 48 hours to produce a result, and so while I wait, I’m allowed to practice and play at Colonial but can’t use any of the facilities. That access is granted only to those who have been cleared through testing.
But, wow, it’s a ghost town around here. No family. No agents. No early-week interviews. The limited personnel and volunteers who are here are wearing face coverings.
Fortunately, I don’t have any niggling injuries, because there’s just one physiotherapy truck on-site and it’s only open for those needing acute injury treatment. There is a problem, though: Before heading to the range I want to swap out the shaft in my 3-wood, but my equipment rep isn’t allowed in any of my player-restricted areas. (To be fair, I can’t hang out in their equipment trucks, either.) So now I must leave my club in a designated dropoff area – and I better remember to pick it up later.
Walking onto the range with my caddie, I see my swing coach at a marked hitting station that follows the social-distancing guidelines. At all times my instructor must remain 6 feet away from me, and he’s not allowed to touch me, so I guess I’m going to have to perfect my shoulder turn all by myself. He can walk inside the ropes with me during a practice round, but never closer than 6 feet. So much for poring over down-the-line swing video with him.
With no Wednesday pro-am, it’s time to head to the first tee for an uninterrupted practice round, but I soon realize this isn’t going to be a typical experience inside the ropes. There, on the tee, is a hand-sanitizer station waiting for me.
Same routine upon arrival: Temperature screening. Questionnaire. Onward.
After going through my warmup, I head to Colonial’s tiny first tee box and greet my fellow playing competitors – not with a handshake or fist bump, but a knowing nod.
For the past few months at home, I’ve needed to comply with the CDC guidelines whenever I played golf – you know, pool noodles or PVC piping in the cups, so the ball doesn’t drop to the bottom. But come on, this is the PGA Tour! We’re not doing that. We’re playing for $1.2 million in first-place money every week. Before the round the course staff disinfected everything – flags, sticks, cup liners, rakes – but we’re still strongly encouraged to sanitize our hands after each hole. There’s no excuse, really: Each tee and green has sanitizing stations.
For the most part, it’s business as usual with my caddie, though we’re supposed to make every effort to social distance from one another throughout the course of the round. Things like pulling and returning my own clubs. Or digging through my bag for another tee, glove, quarter or water bottle.
Of course, my caddie isn’t totally useless now. After some speculation that there were going to be volunteer bunker-rakers or flagstick-tenders, the Tour says that he can still perform those duties as normal – but he needs to clean the rakes or sticks after each use. I’m encouraging him to do so, because the world will be watching our every move, waiting for us to screw up.
Looking around, there are no fans, of course, but they still have ropes up and scoreboards on property so I can keep up with the action. There is a significantly reduced TV footprint, with much of the production handled remotely. Best I can tell, the only people outside the ropes are a few media members, ShotLink staff, a swing coach or two, volunteers and essential personnel. Guess I’ll need to generate my own adrenaline and momentum.
AFTER THE ROUND
Walking off the final green, we head into a large area for scoring that services those who finish on both the ninth and 18th holes. There’s a high-top table, no chairs, with a ShotLink computer and TV monitor in front of me. The table has been cleaned after each group passes through.
Because this is a historic occasion, I expect a media crush following the round, but it never materializes. There’s no interview room, and the traditional flash area is occupied by only a few socially distanced pool reporters who will then share quotes with the rest of the media. We may have to do a few virtual interviews for some off-site outlets, but oftentimes I’m going to be able to freely walk back to the player dining area for a quick bite.
BEFORE THE FINAL ROUND
Whoa! We just heard that a player tested positive. Tough break, too, because he’s in the top 10. Now he must immediately withdraw and will only receive last-place money.
Patient zero lives in South Florida and, under the new Tour regulations, he’ll have to self-quarantine for at least 10 days. His close contacts may also have to be isolated, so I’ve gotta think his looper is going to be holed up for a while, too. Yikes. (At least the Tour will cover the costs.)
FOLLOWING THE FINAL ROUND
I’ve always loved Harbour Town, and so I want to play next week at the Heritage, too. That seems to be the general consensus out here: After three months away, we want to play, play, play ... and stay in our little bubble, where the risk, though not totally eliminated, is at least significantly reduced. We just have to accept that it’s a part of everyday life now.
Luckily for us, the Tour has organized charter flights on a first-come, first-served basis. There are only 170 seats on the plane – yessss, no middle seats! – so I had to let them know a week in advance if I want to hitch a ride the Monday morning after Colonial. The cost to me, as a player, is $600, while my caddie has to pony up $300. Everyone onboard agreed to take another viral test 24 hours before our departure, otherwise this thing could become a breeding ground for the virus.
And nobody wants that, not after this extended layoff, not when the other sports leagues are looking to us as an example of how to safely return to competition.
So, next stop: South Carolina. Where we’ll do it all over again.