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The Tour staged a COVID-free comeback; the challenge is staying that way

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FORT WORTH, Texas – In the uncertain days following the cancellation of The Players amidst the outbreak of COVID-19, the PGA Tour began mapping a way forward. Commissioner Jay Monahan didn’t know exactly what that path would look like, but he did know where it would start.

“Right away, the club (Colonial) and Charles Schwab raised their hand and said, 'When you reset the schedule, not only do we want to be back, but we'd like to be considered to be the first event,” Monahan said.

Colonial was the perfect proof of concept that would allow the Tour to create as close to a bubble as possible given the sprawling footprint of a golf tournament. The result was no fans, no positive tests, no issues. In retrospect, Fort Worth proved be as good as advertised, not that Monahan or anyone else at the Tour took the lid-lifter for granted.

Being among the first sports to return to competition during a pandemic was a rare opportunity for golf to own the landscape. It was also chance for everything to go wrong.

How many positive tests are too many positive tests? That's been a hot topic on Tour the last few weeks, and Monahan admitted on Sunday that the question has driven the Tour’s every move.

“The biggest concern, given the amount of time that we put into our testing and safety protocols, was that even though we felt really good about the plan we had in place, if we saw the number of tests that were positive or we got into a situation where we were dealing with a number of positive tests, that's something, candidly, that I lost a lot of sleep over in the weeks that preceded coming in there,” he said.

The 'new normal' on the PGA Tour due to COVID-19

The 'new normal' on the PGA Tour due to COVID-19

Of the 487 in-market tests given before play started last week, there were no positive results at Colonial, nor did there seem to be any real concern among players.

“No. I never worried (about coronavirus),” Billy Horschel III said. “I haven’t really worried at all in the last month or so since more data has come out on how it’s transmitted. I’ve never lived my life in fear. I understand the risks.”

As exit polls go, player reaction from the Tour’s first event back was universally positive with the only real conversation point being the most obvious. Playing a Tour event without fans was always going to be a disappointment for some, but if the only way to return to competition was without fans, then that was how the Tour would proceed.

“To not have the fan roars, to see the way players are responding when they're making birdies and there's not noise, I mean, that's just the new reality for all of us,” Monahan said. “I still, as an obvious fan, I feel the intensity, and I think that's what fans are experiencing, as well.”

No positive tests certainly qualified as a success for the Tour, and Sunday’s finish that featured plenty of star power helped frame the desired narrative for the public as well as for players. The rank and file didn’t forget about the ongoing pandemic last week; if anything they became more aware of how important it is to continue down this path.

“I mean, I've spent the last two or three months at home, so being out and driving around, being in a foreign city was definitely a little uneasy at times, but we're doing the best we can to stay healthy and do the right thing,” Keegan Bradley said.

Thomas on no fans: 'It's like another round of golf'

Thomas on no fans: 'It's like another round of golf'

There were concerns among some in the media that players and caddies weren’t taking the circuit’s protocols seriously enough. The Tour’s suggestions that only players handle golf clubs and that caddies wipe down flag sticks during rounds were largely ignored, but the central tenet of the program, the testing and the reduction of risk, were ever-present.

“Everyone took it serious enough to be safe. Now, were there more people who took it to the extreme, washing their hands, putting their club back in the bag? Yes, there were some,” Horschel said. “Now, did everyone do that? No. I didn’t do that. We are creatures of habit. But at the same time we [all tested negative] at the beginning of the week, and we all did a good job of minimizing our contact.”

The relief in Monahan’s voice late Sunday was evident, as was a singular message for his players and officials to remain vigilant. The contained Colonial Country Club was a good location for a mid-pandemic tournament, but now the traveling circus heads to Hilton Head Island, S.C., and this week’s RBC Heritage.

There are no 6-foot fences boarding the property at Harbour Town Golf Links and officials will be challenged to keep the event fan-free.

“We've all experienced Harbour Town and seen the houses that line those fairways, and I suspect that you'll see, as we've seen in the past, a number of people in the back yards that are rooting on our players,” Monahan said. “I know they're going to be communicating the importance of social distancing even on the perimeters.”

Monahan’s victory lap was short-lived. The success of the Tour’s return to competition shouldn’t be dismissed, but now it’s on to new challenges.