PGA Tour Commissioner, Jay Monahan admits the Tour has ‘more work to do’ health and safety-wise following a return to competition last week in Texas.
The staging of the Charles Schwab Challenge ended a three-month Tour lockdown with American Daniel Berger emerging victorious at the first extra play-off hole on the Colonial course in Ft. Worth.
Berger was competing under a Tour ‘medical exemption’ following a long lay-off due to a nagging wrist injury, with the 27-year ending a three-year and three-day winless drought to collect a third Tour victory.
The event was the first of four without spectators and while it was one of the strongest fields ever to take to the famed Ben Hogan lay-out, it clearly lacked crowd buzz.
It was not till late on day four when the leading players got to the par-4 15th hole that there was any noise and that came from a portable grandstand set-up in the front of a house on the aptly-named Mockingbird Lane that runs adjacent to the hole along the southside border of the course.
Any thoughts among those clearly beer-charged fans of social distancing in the Lone Star State was out the window and there were glaring similar examples of guideline flouting during the four-day TV coverage both over the boundary fence and indeed inside the ropes of this long-awaited return to competition.
The Tour had issued a 37-page ‘Health & Safety’ guidelines booklet to every single player on all Tour’s coming under the PGA Tour’s umbrella.
Those competing in the event were kept in a virtual bubble in terms of travelling via charter jet to Fort Worth, with the greater majority of players and caddies staying in the official tournament hotels.
There were no individual courtesy cars, no players lounge, no wives/partners allowed, no families, no managers and no direct interaction with the small number of attending media.
Upon arrival at the course there were daily temperature checks while all about the Colonial layout and practice range were hand sanitising stations.
The world’s best players were back playing the game they love and also, as the PGA Tour would wish, seeking to set an example for all those amateurs watching around the world.
But while amateur golf fans have been extremely conscious of practicing social distancing and avoiding any form of bodily or flagstick contact since a return to golf, that wasn’t so at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
There were very clear breaches of the first two points under the ‘General Etiquette and Behaviour Expectations’ as outlined in the Tour’s ‘Health and Safety’ guidelines.
The first point was: ‘Always adhere to recommended social distancing guidelines’ while the second point was: ‘No shaking hands or contact of any kind (fist bumps/high fives)’.
We saw many caddies handling the flagsticks with bare hands while others used a bag towel.
Branden Grace holed a birdie putt at his penultimate hole on day three which was followed by the sight of the 32-year old South African and his caddy fist bumping in delight.
One major ‘social distancing’ indiscretion for the world to see was on day four when Chilean Joaquin Niemann brilliantly holed a 142-yard second shot, also at the 17th, for an eagle ‘2’.
For a few seconds, without any spectators allowed to attend the event, there was uncertainty that the 21-year old had holed out but when he got the thumbs-up Niemann turned to his caddy with both ‘high-fiving’ in delight.
The shot was shown live in the CBS ‘featured groups’ coverage prior to the main final round ‘last groups’ coverage.
However, when the video clip of Niemann’s shot was posted on the PGA Tour’s twitter page the ‘high five’ between Niemann and his caddy had been conveniently edited out.
Of course, old habits will die hard but those who helped formulate the Tour’s ‘Health and Safety’ guidelines must have been cringing with dismay.
In fairness, there were no ‘high fives’, nor back-slapping and definitely no fist bumps from his playing partners or caddies when South Korean Sung Kang aced the par-3 13th on the opening day.
Monahan could be rightfully proud in looking to set an example for all major U.S. sports but he admits there’s still much to do in educating all those inside the ropes.
“There is more work to be done, but this is a phenomenal start to our return,” he said.
“There’s no question about it. It’s gone about as well as we could have hoped for. I’m proud of our team for that.”
Berger, who had rented a house within walking distance of the course and had his uncle with him to cook meals for the duo, was asked his thoughts whether the social distancing rules had worked.
“I thought about the virus very few times this week given 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 could to be safe, and that’s all you really can do,” said the new World No. 31.
“You wash your hands, you don’t touch your face, you wear a mask when you can, you social distance, and 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 that were 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.”
And with the NBA and NHL also working towards resuming their seasons and the Major Baseball League yet to start its already delayed season, Monahan indicated he will be happy to share information about the Tour’s health and safety measures.
“We’ll share everything that we’ve learned and how we’re applying our protocols, and I would imagine some of those calls will happen over the next few days,” Monahan said.