Martin Dempster: So far so good, now let’s see how well top-level golf travels

Charles Scwab challenge proved successful in terms of safety, but next four events will be just as tough a test
Daniel Berger takes a selfie with the trophy after winning the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth on Sunday. Picture: Getty.Daniel Berger takes a selfie with the trophy after winning the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth on Sunday. Picture: Getty.
Daniel Berger takes a selfie with the trophy after winning the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth on Sunday. Picture: Getty.

It seemed too early when the PGA Tour’s planned return was set for early June. Even Russell Knox, who sits on the circuit’s Player Advisory Council, had admitted there was a “risk” to golf being one of the first sports back in the spotlight following the coronavirus lockdown.

Credit where credit is due, though. By all accounts, it was job done as the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth got the sport up and running again at the top level after a three-month hiatus.

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The Covid-19 testing for players and caddies all came back negative, much to the relief of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “I think the biggest concern given the amount of time that we put into our testing and safety protocols, and felt really good about the plan we had in place, was that we saw a number of positive tests,” he admitted as the tournament was drawing to a conclusion on Sunday. “That’s something, candidly, that I lost a lot of sleep over in the weeks that preceded coming in there.”

The word “bubble” is being used as much as birdies and bogeys in the game at the moment. When the European Tour restarts next month, that will involve players, caddies, tournament staff and the media staying in two hotels in Newcastle and only being allowed out to travel to Close House, venue for the Betfred British Masters. A similar process will be in place for the other five events on a new UK Swing.

As part of the PGA Tour’s “bubble”, players were allowed to stay in rented houses, where they either had professional chefs or family members looking after them away from the golf course.

“I felt 100 per cent safe,” said Daniel Berger, who emerged as the winner in Texas after beating fellow American Collin Morikawa in a play-off. “I thought about the virus very few times this week. You know, it’s been such a big part of our lives for the last two months, and I feel like I just tried to do everything I can to be safe, and that’s all you really can do.

“You wash your hands, you don’t touch your face, you wear a mask when you can, you social distance, Obviously we got tested early in the week, so I knew I was healthy before I got here. We had the temperature readings before we got on-site every single day. I knew that all of the employees and staff here were doing the same thing. I felt completely safe. I felt very comfortable, and I thought they did a great job in implementing their plan.”

A revamped 2020 schedule, which includes three of the four men’s majors and all but one of the five women’s majors, will only materialise if the PGA Tour can get through this initial return with a clean bill of health. Just because the first event has proved successful in terms of safety, it doesn’t mean the next four will be any easier.

“For the most part, I think we all did pretty well, but we’re going to have to watch what we do,” said runner-up Morikawa, a tour rookie but speaking like a seasoned veteran. “Hopefully just because we played one week doesn’t mean we can go party and go do everything else like we used to.

“We still have to follow these guidelines and maintain safety and strict rules with how far we stay from each other because it’s still out there. We just have to be cognisant of what’s around us and where we put ourselves because we want to keep playing. Hopefully this never stops. We’ve got months and months and months of golf up until the winter.”

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The next test is how that “bubble” will travel as the circuit moves to Hilton Head in South Carolina for this week’s RBC Heritage, which boasts an equally strong field. Players and caddies were sent a group text from the PGA Tour last week reminding them of the social distancing guidelines after many were seen ignoring the restrictions during practice rounds. Coaches and swing instructors were also warned by the tour about getting too close to players on the range.

“There’s no question that this has been an exceptional week,” declared Monahan of the event itself, plus a decision to keep the 8:46 tee time free in memory of George Floyd, whom prosecutors claim was knelt on for eight minutes and 46 seconds by police, killing him in the process, in Minneapolis last month, prompting widespread civil unrest, and also caddie bibs bearing the name of a frontline healthcare work as well as the player. “But there’s more work to be done. This is about a sustained return, and I’m sure there are adjustments that we’ll make.”

So far, so good.

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