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Tour and players leery of the coronavirus, but still trying to engage with fans

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Billy Horschel put the finishing touches on a closing 73 on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and shook hands with two caddies, a fellow player, two tournament officials and a group of military types perched just off the green.

Since the beginning of the game it’s what you do after a round, but in the age of coronavirus and nonstop updates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s become an occupational hazard.

For Horschel, golf is an engaging sport even inside the ropes and this morning’s headlines aren’t going to change that.

“That’s not golf. That’s not our sport. That’s not what we do,” Horschel said when asked if he considered skipping the customary handshake. “I’m just hoping that the people I shook their hands are aware that if they are sick, they shouldn’t be out there.”

The vast majority of players were of the same mindset, at least when it came to the traditional handshake, despite warnings from health officials and moves in other sports that suggest caution might be a better option. Just this week, the Premier League did away with “fair-play” handshakes and last week the NBA advised players not to accept items from fans for autographs.

Golf, however, isn’t completely ignoring the growing concerns.

On Sunday at Bay Hill, Rickie Fowler revealed a surprising germophobic side. One of the game’s most engaging and popular players explained that his first few years on Tour he was spending a lot of time high-fiving fans – but that changed over time.

Players on coronavirus: 'Foolish' not to pay attention

Players on coronavirus: 'Foolish' not to pay attention

Players on coronavirus: 'Foolish' not to pay attention

“I found myself every once and a while getting sick, not necessarily because of the fans, but I went to basically rarely doing any kind of high-five, maybe a fist bump every once in a while,” Fowler said. “To me, you are kind of setting yourself up to maybe get something. It’s something I’ve been more aware of and even more so now.”

The current concerns over COVID-19 has gotten players attention and the Tour recently issued a statement that suggests there could be less fan interaction in the coming weeks.

“Fans should be aware that – out of an overabundance of caution – some players may decline to sign autographs at the event. This is out of respect for the health and well-being of all involved, and the PGA Tour and its players greatly appreciate your understanding,” the statement read.

But even as the outbreak continues to gain momentum most players at Bay Hill didn’t appeared deterred.

“I heard someone say to use your own Sharpie [to sign autographs]. I hadn’t thought about that sense then. I’ve got my own Sharpie,” said Zach Johnson, who did explain that he prefers to give fans “knuckles” instead of high-fives.

Horschel also said that he’d gone to fist bumps in recent years, but had no problem accepting whatever item a fan handed him during his autograph session.

“I’m going to sign whatever someone hands me and then I’m going to go and wash my hands,” Horschel said. “I don’t live my life in fear.”

The more pressing concern over the coronavirus, at least for players, are ongoing rumors that events might be impacted by the outbreak.

On Monday, a tennis tournament in California was cancelled over public health concerns. Even closer to home for the Tour was news last week that South by Southwest, the annual tech, film and music conference held in Austin, Texas, was canceled because of concerns surrounding the outbreak, with Austin mayor Steve Adler declaring a local disaster in the city.

The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is scheduled to be played at Austin Country Club in three weeks. In a statement last week, the Tour said it continues to monitor the situation in Austin and the circuit has established a set of protocols that include additional hand-sanitizer stations in high-traffic areas.

The LPGA and European Tour have already cancelled or postponed events in affected areas, but tournaments in the United States have not been impacted. That hasn’t stopped players from speculating.

“People were saying [the Masters] might not have patrons this year. That was a rumor the last couple of days with the players. That would be unbelievable to play Augusta with no patrons,” Horschel said.

ANGC monitoring corona; Masters on schedule

Amid the continued spread of coronavirus, Augusta National announced that the Masters Tournament will go on as planned.

Augusta National issued a statement last week that said the club is monitoring the situation and consulting with WHO, CDC, Georgia Department of Public Health and local authorities, and that it is “proceeding as scheduled for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals and the Masters.”

The Tour has played rounds without fans before, most recently last fall at the Zozo Championship when weather delays resulted in a Monday finish, but an entire Tour event played without fans would be unprecedented.

The concept gained enough momentum in recent days that Tour officials posted a Q&A on The Players’ website advising fans of additional hand-sanitizing stations (there will be 120 hand sanitizers this week at TPC Sawgrass) and even addressed whether the Tour’s flagship event could be cancelled: “We are proceeding as scheduled,” the memo read.

“The fans bring the atmosphere, they bring the pressure, they bring the edge coming down the stretch. Without that it just wouldn’t be as exciting,” Graeme McDowell said. “It would be like making a 3-pointer in a basketball arena without the crowds. That’s what it’s all about. It gives you that buzz, that adrenaline. It is going to affect our job in the next six months in some way, shape or form, you’d imagine. I just hope it doesn’t affect things too heavily.”

So far golf in the United States has remained largely untouched by the outbreak, but McDowell’s ominous prediction was echoed by other players at Bay Hill. Even one of the game’s oldest traditions, the post-round handshake, may be in danger.