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Welcome to strange: Fall golf is here, and it sure does look different

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It was a scene straight out of “Ghostbusters.”

A man wearing what looked like a “proton pack” –“neutrino wand” and all – was thoroughly spraying high-touch surfaces around South Carolina’s golf facility. Even the interior of the team van got special treatment, as he applied a chemical substance called BacShield, which is designed to protect surfaces from many pathogens, including coronaviruses, for up to 90 days.

“Priorities have changed a little bit,” Gamecocks men’s coach Bill McDonald said. “You’re in a situation that you’ve never been in as a coach, ever. … All the traditions that you traditionally do, that’s all kind of been thrown out the window.”

Yes, this fall has been something strange so far.

When the COVID-19 first reared its ugly head last spring, canceling the last two months of the season, including the NCAA Championships, many coaches and players looked forward to a fresh start this fall. That reboot never came. The novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, is still of sizable concern, and as a result many conferences and institutions around the country have played it safe when it comes to college athletics, including golf.

While golf has been played in earnest at all levels for much of the summer, the majority of conferences – 22 to be exact – opted to postpone golf, among other fall sports, to the spring. That includes conferences such as the ACC and Big Ten, which will both play football this fall. Six more conferences decided to leave such decisions to each individual athletic department, while just three conferences – the Big 12, SEC and Sun Belt – have given all of their members the green light to tee it up.

On the men’s side, that means that out of 300 Division I teams, just over 60 will have players hit a shot before the end of the calendar year.

“Telling our guys that they were going to be able to play [this fall] was the most fun thing I’ve gotten to do as a coach since before I had to tell them their season was done last spring,” LSU men’s coach Chuck Winstead said. “Their excitement was what made it great. We just wanted to play, and we’re fortunate to play in a league and for universities that have given us the opportunity to do so.”

The Tigers, like the rest of the SEC programs, will play a three-event, conference-only schedule beginning in October. The men will log tournaments at Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Alabama, while the women will join them at Blessings Golf Club for the Oct. 5-7 event, which will be televised live on Golf Channel, before finishing up their fall slates at Mississippi State and Georgia. The only exceptions will be Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss, who will compete alongside Texas in the women’s portion of the East Lake Cup. (Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Pepperdine will be the men’s participants this October in Atlanta.)

“We’re basically playing three SEC Championships this fall,” McDonald said. “As coaches, we all really banded together and tried to put something in place that was doable. Hopefully, we can pull this off.”

Some teams have already started to tread the uncharted waters of playing college golf in a pandemic. Louisiana Tech hosted the first Division I men’s event of the new season, the Jim Rivers Intercollegiate, last week in Choudrant, Louisiana. The tournament is one of two men’s competitions to have already been completed this fall. (Two women’s events have been contested, as well.)

“I had coaches come up to me and tell me they couldn’t have been more excited for the van drive,” said Bulldogs men’s coach Matt Terry, whose team finished fourth, 17 shots behind winner UAB, which has swept both men’s events so far.

The 12-team, 54-hole contest was played over three days at Squire Creek Country Club. Typically, these types of events would be contested over two days with shotgun starts used for at least the first two rounds. But in an effort to social distance, tee times were implemented, and each threesome consisted of three players from the same team. Teams were allowed lineups of six players (up from the usual five) with the low four scores counting each round.

Other COVID-19 protocols included temperature checks, boxed lunches and the requirement that players and coaches produce a negative test result within 72 hours of traveling and competing.

Terry was at his daughter’s volleyball game when he received word that he and his players were negative. “I started high-fiving the people I was with in the stands,” he said. He then spent the next evening with his fingers crossed as the other coaches sent in their teams’ test results. Only one team had to adjust its travel lineup because of a positive test.

COVID-19 affects OSU, OU men's golf teams

Five Oklahoma State men’s golfers have recently tested positive for COVID-19 while rival Oklahoma has also had a “significant” number of players affected.

“It’s strange,” Terry said. “You’re celebrating guys being eligible to play due to a COVID test, but it’s the world that we’re in right now and we’ve gotta get used to it. … It’s what we’ve gotta do to be able to play.”

Similar safety measures will be replicated across the country. The Big 12 men will make its return at the same place the PGA Tour did earlier this summer, at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, before its teams immediately head to Houston for the conference’s annual match-play event in an effort to consolidate travel. Most teams will drive to tournaments, though there will still be some air travel, including for Coastal Carolina, which will cap its fall against some of the top teams in the country at Maridoe Golf Club near Dallas.

Not that the Chanticleers will physically see most of them with entire lineups playing together in fivesomes.

“You’re going to see 15 schools getting together where many of them will never even see each other or come in contact with each other,” Garren said.

Still, Garren and other coaches know it’s not a fool-proof system. There will be some challenges. In fact, for many teams, there already have been. Earlier this month, Oklahoma State’s men’s team had five players test positive for COVID-19 while rival Oklahoma also has had a “significant” number of players who either tested positive or were forced to quarantine because of contact with someone who had received a positive test.

They weren’t the only teams, and they likely won’t be the last with most schools testing their athletes weekly.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge, positive tests and contact tracing,” South Carolina women’s coach Kalen Anderson said. “We’re traveling in a van together, many players live with each other – one person tests positive, then our whole team’s exposed, and that shuts us down very quickly.”

The Gamecocks have little margin for error, too, with senior Ana Pelaez opting to stay in Spain until January and incoming freshman Kaiyuree Moodley still in South Africa as she remains unable to get acquire her student visa. That leaves just six players on the roster. Other top women’s programs that are playing this fall will also be without notable players, including Alabama (Benedetta Moresco), Vanderbilt (Auston Kim) and Oklahoma State (Maja Stark).

Despite only having three players at his team’s first official practice in August, West Virginia men’s coach Sean Covich figured he’d have all eight of his guys this fall. That was until senior Etienne Papineau, who was among the many players afforded an extra year by the NCAA, was forced to undergo season-ending knee surgery. The Mountaineers have since adopted the hashtag #PlayForPap and, with Papineau hailing from Quebec, put fleur-de-lis stickers on their golf bags.

As the adversity has piled up, Covich has challenged his squad: “I tell the guys: Whatever happens this year is to our advantage. That’s the way we have to look at it.”

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Wake Forest finished last season’s abbreviated campaign ranked No. 1 in the Golfstat women’s rankings, and with a pair of first-team All-Americans in Emilia Migliaccio and Rachel Kuehn returning, the Demon Deacons were again on the short list of national-championship contenders.

Yet Wake, along with six other top-10 women’s teams from a season ago, will be on the sidelines, as the ACC prohibited sports with spring championship segments from competing in the fall. That means no title defense at the Annika Intercollegiate, which was canceled. It means no return trip to East Lake Cup, which the Demon Deacons also won.

“East Lake is going to be the toughest,” Wake Forest women’s coach Kim Lewellen said. “That’s going to really hit home for these girls.”

There is, however, a silver lining in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Many teams, including several in the Pac-12, haven’t even been allowed to practice or participate in team activities. The Demon Deacons not only have been practicing, but they also have all 10 players on campus.

Without tournaments to play, Lewellen said it’s been a “time of growth” for everyone. Senior Swing Liu was able to dive into some technical changes with her swing. Other players are hitting the gym hard. The three freshmen are loading up on their class schedules. Migliaccio played the ANA Inspiration and will compete in the U.S. Women’s Open this December. Kuehn plans to play a Symetra Tour event.

Don’t expect either to be rusty, either, as Lewellen scheduled three intrasquad tournaments this fall. The first one was held two weeks ago, with Kuehn shooting 15 under in 72 holes split between Old Town Club and Bermuda Run’s East Course.

“That was probably the first time where I really missed competing because you could really see that the girls were in a good place,” Lewellen said. “It would’ve been fun to watch them play against some other teams.”

Fall college golf: Who's playing and where, who's not

Here's a list of what conferences are playing and aren't playing college golf this fall, plus the complete Division I schedule.

Luckily for the college golfers who aren’t participating in team golf this fall, there will still be plenty of chances to keep the tournament juices flowing. A laundry list of amateur tournaments has popped up on the schedule to give these players a chance to compete individually, or what the NCAA calls “unattached.” The Golf Coaches Association of America created a 24-event amateur series designed solely for college players. Seven have already been contested with Colorado State’s Davis Bryant and USC’s Cameron Henry among the winners so far. The next event will be held this weekend at Pinehurst No. 6, where the field is highlighted by Wake Forest standout and Walker Cupper Alex Fitzpatrick.

Maridoe Golf Club also stepped up to fill the tournament void. Not only will the club host 12 college teams, including Texas, Pepperdine, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but it will also invite 44 unattached individuals to compete in the Maridoe Collegiate Invitational, including Fitzpatrick, Arizona State’s Kevin Yu and SMU teammates Mac Meissner and Noah Goodwin.

While these individuals won’t be ranked by Golfstat, they will still compete for a spot in this fall’s Houston Open on the PGA Tour.

Not a bad consolation in an otherwise strange situation – one that could get stranger.

What's going to happen with the rankings? Regional bids? Postseason awards? Will every team even play in the spring?

Those are all questions that will be answered in time. Just not right now.

“We will all remember this time,” Arizona State men’s coach Matt Thurmond said. “It’s a historic time. Everyone will have a story about this time. And my challenge to my guys is to make sure your story is a positive. You don’t want to say, ‘Hey, I just sat around, waiting for a tournament to start, complaining about everything. You want to say, ‘I worked on this, I got stronger at this, I read these books.’ … We’ve tried to focus on the things that we can control, pick a few little things to get better at, but also to relax and rejuvenate, recharge the batteries, and we’ll be ready to go when we can compete again.”