HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – A week and a half into the PGA Tour’s return to competition, players seemed to be settling into what some have called “our new normal,” complete with regular COVID-19 tests, social-distancing requirements and the relative confinement of life inside a manufactured “bubble.”
Simply playing golf can bring its own sense of normalcy but for players who are all creatures of habit, life in the post-quarantine world has required some adjustments.
Exactly what changes have resonated the most, depends on the player:
• The absence of fans has been the most-talked-about difference since the Tour returned from a 91-day hiatus, and those who found themselves in quiet contention last week certainly felt the difference.
“It was definitely interesting to be out there and not have the fans and the energy,” Rickie Fowler said. “You're still playing against the best players in the world, but not having fans out there is very different. Not knowing how close your ball is, crowd reactions, making a putt for birdie. It's very quiet.”
That’s not to say the lack of fans was a drawback for every player. “I sort of like it. It's quiet. You can get from A to B and not get stopped 20 times,” Rory McIlroy said. “We all miss the fans, and the fans make the atmosphere, but at the same time, it's sort of nice to be able to just go about your business.”
• For many players, it’s the simple things that have changed because of the COVID-19 restrictions, like how you interact with your caddie.
“Early on, trying to get used to how [caddie Fluff Cowan] and I were going to move around the golf bag and around the golf course and try to social distance and try to create some space,” Jim Furyk said. “I think just kind of being worried about the appearance of what it would look like on television.”
• For most players, traveling from city to city has become second nature and routines have been refined over the years – what hotel to stay at, where to eat, what airport to fly into. There are now designated and "highly suggested" places to stay and attend.
“I think it's the dining,” Brian Harman said of the post-quarantine challenges. “We're so used to coming in and just being catered to. All this food is just everywhere. It's just a little bit more planning to where you're going to get your meals from.
“We just have to be conscious because, like, if I finish early on a Wednesday, I want to go to see a movie or something like that, and it's odd being on the road and being kind of like it is at home. Like you kind of have to stay in, and we're trying not to go out too much.”
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• The Tour may soon decide to allow the normal "workout" trailer at events. The circuit did allow the “treatment” van to travel to the first two events but given how much a player’s fitness is part of his routine there were already calls for a change to that policy.
“One thing I heard a lot about is we have our [fitness trainers] out there but we don’t have our workout trailer. Guys were asking why we didn’t have the workout trailer. If the gym is open at the hotel isn’t it better if guys were working out in the trailer?” Billy Horschel said.
• Of particular interest to players this week at the RBC Heritage, which is usually one of the circuit’s most laidback events, is the absence of families. Renting condos on the ocean and enjoying “family week” is one of the Heritage’s greatest draws.
“Not having family here and being able to watch. I mean, my wife is a very dedicated, loyal watcher of golf for me over the past few years,” Wesley Bryan said. “Not having her here is going to be a little bit odd.”
• Perhaps the most challenging difference has been how players interact with the various equipment representatives. Before COVID-19, reps were a hands-on part of a player’s pre-tournament routine, but that process has been altered this week.
Equipment reps are not allowed inside the Tour’s bubble and clubs have to be taken and returned through a sanitation station to reduce the contact between the two groups. Those protocols have added five to 10 minutes to the normal process. “That’s what we have to do,” said one equipment rep. “The important part has been getting players to understand this is what we have to do now.”