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Golf in a pandemic: How the PGA Tour is returning to action this week

Maybe it was a little good old-fashioned Texas can-do spirit. Or maybe it was just blind optimism in the face of a pandemic. Either way, even as games and tournaments were vanishing into the air in March, the organizers of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth never thought their show wouldn’t go on. 

“I don’t think we ever felt canceled,” said tournament director Michael Tothe. “Leading up to the Byron Nelson [scheduled for May 7-10, canceled in March], we all kind of internally said, ‘We’re next up.’ Then, in early April, the [PGA] Tour said, ‘You’re up, but we’re moving you to June.’ ”

The tournament, in contact with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, and in connection with the PGA Tour, has implemented an entire range of safety protocols designed to protect players, officials, service workers and the (very few) volunteers on-site at Colonial Country Club. It’s been a daunting task, being the first one into the forest, but with just days before play begins, tournament officials believe they’re on the right path so far. 

“Our first thought wasn’t, ‘We’re going to be in the national spotlight,’ ” said tournament chairman Rob Hood. “Our first thought was, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ ”

A 2011 photo of Colonial's clubhouse. There won't be fans there this week. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Golf comes back: Here’s how

Thursday, three months after the PGA Tour halted the 2019-20 season one day into the Players Championship, golf — real golf, not exhibition golf — returns with a four-tournament fan-free swing. After Colonial, the Tour will travel to the RBC Heritage in South Carolina, the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, and the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Michigan. The John Deere Classic in Illinois in July is expected to be the first post-shutdown Tour event with fans in attendance. 

In mid-May, the Tour rolled out its full plan for bringing back golf: a combination of testing, social distancing and designated residences. Players will be flown to the tournaments via chartered planes at a cost of $600 per seat ($300 for caddies), and will largely stay at the same, designated hotel. Caddies will have to maintain social distancing from their players, as best as possible, and the post-round handshakes are, for now, a thing of the past. 

This week, it all begins at one of the more respected sites on tour. Along with Augusta National, Colonial Country Club is one of the longest-running, single-site tournament hosts on the PGA Tour. A favorite of Ben Hogan, who won this tournament five times, the course sits up hard against the Trinity River. The limited access to the course — it sits in the heart of a residential area — helped simplify protocols to reduce the possibility of infection when the PGA Tour and tournament officials were working out details on bringing golf back. 

The Charles Schwab Challenge had been slated for May 21-24, just after the PGA Championship, which could have dented the field strength. But now, coming after three months of downtime, virtually every top pro that could make his way to Texas is in the tournament. 

The result is a field that is just short of major strength, with every player in the top five and virtually every big name outside of You Know Who teeing it up starting Thursday. Even as they’re working their way through new testing and safety protocols, the players and tournament officials are getting used to a new tournament reality: one where golf, and only golf, reigns supreme. 

Rory McIlroy prepares for the Charles Schwab Challenge. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

“It’s kind of going to be a quiet week for us,” Tothe said. “Normally we have a pro-am Monday and a pro-am Wednesday, pro-am picking parties Sunday night and Tuesday night, the Ben Hogan Award Dinner Tuesday night, the Champions Dinner Wednesday night. There’s none of that now.” 

Instead, Colonial itself will become the star. With no fans in attendance, and thus no grandstands, TV viewers will get the rare treat of watching the world’s best navigate an all-but-empty golf course. Without fans to locate lost balls, trample down rough or give clues as to how other players are faring (think: loud applause for good shots), it’ll be a different experience for players, without a doubt. 

“It’s going to be interesting for the diehard golf fan who’s into golf courses and architecture,” Hood said. “They’ll see a lot that they haven’t been able to see before. Normally the backside of all greens is surrounded by hospitality suites, bleachers and wrap. Now, a lot of guys, when they miss our small greens, are going to have to make shots they haven’t had to make before. A lot of shots are going to go further afield than normal.” 

Safety protocols: Constant but necessary

The tournament will operate under a “bubble” system that, in theory, will keep competitors and other essential (to golf, anyway) personnel effectively quarantined away from potential infection. Inside-the-bubble personnel include players, caddies, interpreters, tournament officials, PGA Tour staff and food service personnel. The Colonial clubhouse is large enough that it can be divided into secure and less-secure zones. 

Players, caddies and others inside the bubble are tested, via a Sanford Health mobile testing center, when they arrive on site for the first time. Those test results take a few hours to come back; during that time, the player can practice, but can’t enter the clubhouse. After the player gets his test results back, via an app called “Healthy Roster,” he’ll get an orange lanyard that will act as a credential to freely flow within the bubble area. 

Those inside the bubble will get their temperature checked every day. Should there be a spike, or should someone fail the initial test, they’ll be immediately quarantined. Workers will be sent home, while players will be ushered to a secondary quarantine area for retesting. One positive test won’t necessarily shut down the entire tournament.

Starting back strong

It’s tough to remember a non-major tournament in recent golf history with this level of star power in the field. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka — the top three golfers in the world — will form one pairing. Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth will be another. Also grouped: Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Rose. Reigning champion Kevin Na, reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and Phil Mickelson will form yet another strong grouping. 

There will be a bit of a reality-show feel to it all; many CBS commentators won’t be on site, and several players will be mic’ed up. In addition, the players will step into small tents between holes and answer pre-printed questions about what they’ve been up to for the last three months.

“Looking at the viewership of The Match,” Hood said, referring to the Tiger/Phil/Brady/Manning exhibition of last month, “it’s obvious there’s a real demand to watch some golf and sports in general. Viewership is going to be through the roof.” 

“It’s going to be very laid-back,” Tothe said, “but epic.” 

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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