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Olin Browne eyes return to Colonial, return to 'normal,' as golf readies for resumption

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It was Olin Browne’s second PGA Tour victory, and it was rewarding for so many different reasons.

Browne began that final round at the 1999 MasterCard Colonial tied for 11th place and three shots off the lead. Not exactly Position A. But he started his closing turn with an eagle-3 at the first hole, added another eagle at the par-5 11th hole and birdied No. 15 to hold on for a one-stroke victory over the likes of Fred Funk, Paul Goydos and Jeff Sluman.

But it’s not those memories or the two decades that have passed since that victorious Sunday at Colonial that will bring Browne back to Fort Worth, Texas, next week. At 61 years old, he simply realizes the gravity of the moment and what it will mean for the game when golf resumes.

“I know everyone whose name is on [the Champion’s Wall] and we value that very highly,” Browne said. “I don’t feel uncomfortable about playing. If we get the all-clear, I’m going to go play. Life doesn’t stop. At some point we have to stick our toe in the water.”

Browne hasn’t played the Charles Schwab Challenge since 2014 and he hasn’t played a Tour event since 2018, but the chance to be a part of history, even a history that many would rather forget, has a pull on someone like Browne.

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It was the same pull he felt in the days following the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, there was no small amount of uncertainty in what society, and by extension sports, would look like, and even the mundane act of traveling to a tournament became much more involved.

“We had just been attacked for the first time on American soil since World War II and it was a weird feeling. As an American, you have to feel like you’re doing the right thing,” Browne recalled. “[But] this is different. This isn’t a localized attack. This is a worldwide issue. The whole world is impacted. We’re hearing things, but I don’t know if we’re hearing exactly what’s happening around the world.”

As a former champion who won the event before 2000, Browne is exempt into the tournament along with David Frost and Tom Lehman, but they are “added to the starting field,” which means they don’t take a spot from a Tour member. It also means the decision was easy for Browne.

In recent years, he’d been unable to play the Colonial stop because it conflicted with the Senior PGA Championship and his focus was understandably on the PGA Tour Champions. That’s not an issue this year with the over-50 circuit picking up its schedule in July.

Like the rest of society, Browne also has had the chance to contemplate what "normal" will look like when the competitions start again.

“These things are shocks to everybody’s system. After four months away, assuming state and local officials say it’s OK to play, you have to start up again sometime and somewhere,” he said. “I think it’s important to try to return to life. This is a shock to everybody.”

Podcast: Is the PGA Tour ready for a return? senior writers Rex Hoggard and Ryan Lavner discuss the logistics behind the PGA Tour's return to action next week at Colonial.

For Browne, a thoughtful type who lists his special interests as the environment, politics and international affairs, next week’s event is more than simply another tournament. More than simply an event that means the world to him as a former champion. It’s a chance to start creating something new.

When play was halted in March it was difficult to imagine how the game - how any game - could start over, but as the weeks turned to months, the impossible slowly became probable. That curve is only going to increase as officials and players begin the process of trial and error.

“A week ago, we had a whole different take on what was going on. Six weeks from now we’ll have an entirely new perspective on things,” Browne said. “In a broad picture with the light of six or seven weeks, we’re all going to have a better grasp. I’m not going to be hesitant if the world returns to normal.”

Normal, of course, is going to be a relative concept in the weeks and months to come. Daily temperature and health screenings, along with layered testing, will be the status quo in the foreseeable future at Tour events and, again, at 61, Browne understands he’s on the hazardous end of the spectrum when it comes to the dangers of COVID-19.

Browne understands better than most that a return to competition comes with a healthy share of challenges and risks, and that all of these decisions can be wildly polarizing.

“There are a lot of people on both ends of the spectrum of whether we should or shouldn’t play. I think most people lie somewhere between those two extremes,” he said. “You have to live life. I know the world can’t come to a halt for five years, how would that work? That’s unfathomable.”

During the heart of the pandemic, Browne concedes he didn’t touch a golf club for seven weeks, but it was the idea that he needed to start getting ready to do what he’s always done that brought a rare sense of order.

“It’s what I do, I don’t know how many years I have left. I want to go back [to Colonial],” Browne said. “I’m not trying to be callous in any way, certainly you feel for the families who have been torn apart by the pandemic, but there has to be some sort of return to normal.”