LPGA pros didn’t have to wait long to be reminded what’s at stake as they make their restart this week at the Drive On Championship in Toledo, Ohio.
With Wednesday’s news that Gaby Lopez became the first LPGA player to test positive for COVID-19 in pre-tournament testing at Inverness Club, there is both excitement and trepidation in the women’s return to competition.
“This pandemic is real, and I have a lot of my friends that were affected by it,” rookie Albane Valenzuela said. “It's definitely scary. We have to be overly cautious. We can't be cautious enough, I think, being back on tour.”
When the first tee shot is struck Friday at Inverness Club, 166 days will have passed since the LPGA last staged an event, back at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. It’s been a long time since some of these tour pros have seen each other, and while there is eagerness to renew friendships, there’s an awkwardness built into the new social dynamic.
“It's definitely weird seeing your friends on tour and not hugging them,” Valenzuela said. “I'm a hugger.
“You just have to catch yourself and say, 'Well, we have to stay at a safe distance.’”
There are instincts to be checked, new habits to form.
And a new checklist for players prepping their golf bags before heading to the course.
Masks . . . hand sanitizer . . . Lysol wipes.
“It's definitely different,” Bronte Law said. “I spoke with my caddie and my family before I came out here, and I told them that I think it's really important to expect that things are going to be different, and not get too caught up in the fact that I can't have my routine that I usually have.
“There are going to be things that are going to change, and you need to be able to adapt, even more than you usually do as a professional athlete.”
One thing that won’t change for Law is her patented fist pump, even with no fans allowed this week. She’s still going to be punching the air when big putts fall.
“Absolutely,” said Law, winner of last year’s Pure Silk Championship. “I do that for me, not for other people.”
The LPGA staged just four events at year’s start, before COVID-19’s threat shut down play, three weeks before the PGA Tour did so, with the women overseas amid their Australian/Asian swing.
Thirteen LPGA events have been canceled amid the pandemic, with a 14th appearing likely to be shut down in China. That leaves 17 events on the schedule, not counting Shanghai.
World No. 2 Nelly Korda, No. 5 Danielle Kang, No. 8 Minjee Lee and No. 9 Lexi Thompson are among the 135 LPGA pros making their return this week. The absence of so many South Koreans in Toledo, most of whom are sheltering at home while playing the Korean LPGA Tour, looms as another reminder of the pandemic’s threat.
Like all the players and caddies in the field, Valenzuela was required to take a COVID-19 saliva test before departing for the Drive On Championship. She took another upon arriving Monday, with a negative result coming back Tuesday. She was allowed on property to practice and play while awaiting test results, but she wasn’t cleared to enter the clubhouse until that second test came back negative.
“The tour knows what they're doing, and I feel pretty safe now being in this bubble,” Valenzuela said.
Per LPGA protocols, a medical doctor is on site, or on call, to help players who test positive or feel sick.
LPGA pros know the world’s watching how they handle the challenges.
“Ultimately, there is a bigger picture here right now,” Law said. “It’s great to be back playing golf, but I don't want to be responsible for giving it to someone else. So, there are a couple things about being out and about, and I just think being very diligent and careful, making sure that you're using hand sanitizer, wiping everything down.
“As long as I keep doing that and everyone else is doing that, hopefully, that's taken care of, and there doesn't need to be too much worry about me possibly having that passed on or getting it.”
Spectators aren’t allowed in the LPGA’s tournament site bubble this week. In fact, at least the first five events of the LPGA’s restart will be played without fans in attendance.
“It’s just a different experience, just to be out there and play golf,” Valenzuela said. “You're there with your caddie, and it kind of feels like a college tournament at this point.”
Valenzuela, a rookie who made three starts before the tour was put on pause, is just fine with that.
“So excited to get back to competition,” she said.
She’s not alone.
“Ultimately, I really hope that we can put on a show that we haven't been able to for a while, and be able to maintain health on the tour, and also in the areas that we're traveling to,” Law said.