A pandemic, a plan and a return to golf with no interruption


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan keeps the screenshot his daughters sent him as a tease one year ago. Now it’s a reminder of how quickly celebration gave way to concern and uncertainty in a week like no other.

The photo is Monahan being interviewed by CNBC on Monday of The Players Championship to announce the tour’s new multi-billion dollar media rights deal, while the ticker on the bottom of the TV shows stock prices in the biggest free fall since the 2008 recession.

The cause was Saudi Arabia slashing oil prices amid anxiety over the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Being in a business news environment, it was overwhelming the morning, and here we are announcing our longtime media partnerships,” Monahan said. “So it was this juxtaposition of an incredibly exciting, momentous day for our players coupled with, ‘Wow, we have something on the precipice of affecting what we’re going to be able to do.’”

It didn’t take long to go over the edge.

By Wednesday of that week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The next day, in rapid succession, the tour went from saying there would be no fans at TPC Sawgrass the rest of the week, to no fans at any PGA Tour event for the next month, and finally that there would be no tournaments at all.

No other sport has a longer season than golf.

“We play virtually every week. We don’t shut down,” Monahan said. “I was telling everyone that we canceled The Players and hope to return soon. And I had no idea what that was. That amount of uncertainty about when we’ll play again is not something I’ve ever experienced. Nor have our players.”

The Players Championship marks the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, and Monahan is all about looking forward.

The tour is allowing 20% capacity of fans at Sawgrass. Based on the sound from the Phoenix Open and at Bay Hill, even limited spectators can make plenty of noise compared with nine months of mostly silence.

When the PGA Tour resumed on June 11, it played 33 of the next 36 weeks — one week off for Thanksgiving, two for the holiday season — without interruption or outbreak. Over the last nine months, the tour has gone to 31 communities in 18 states and four other countries.

The positivity rate from roughly 50,000 coronavirus tests across three tours is less than a quarter percent. On the PGA Tour alone, 25 players reported positive tests, a list that included Dustin Johnson a month before he won the Masters.

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. Monahan chose not to be paid and his top executives took a 25% cut in pay. The tour laid off 50 employees in the fall. Twelve tournament were canceled. Others drained their reserve funds to get by without fans, hospitality, pro-ams and other key sources of revenue.

The road back was far more complicated than the decision to shut down.

First, the majors had to find a spot on the schedule. The Masters took November, the PGA Championship went to August and the U.S. Open was about to take December until September opened up when the British Open was canceled.

“If I look back right now, I’ve got 60-plus spreadsheets of different versions of the schedule,” said Tyler Dennis, the tour’s chief of operations. “We were moving puzzle pieces around — who we thought might be able to play, when they could play, who we thought might have to cancel due to restrictions. It was a wild process. Normally we’re looking at schedules five years out. Now we’re looking five weeks out.”

The RBC Heritage, which follows the Masters in April, originally was canceled. And then it was moved to June. Only two of the 14 tournaments when golf resumed kept their original spot on the schedule.

None of it mattered without a health and safety plan. That largely fell to Andy Levinson, the senior vice president of tour administration who also oversees the anti-doping program and has his hand in gaming issues.

Working with Dr. Tom Hospel, the tour’s medical adviser, Levinson found himself immersed in ever-changing CDC guidelines and on the phone with experts from the WHO and the White House.

The first presentation of “Return to Golf” to the players on the policy board didn’t go very well.

“The tour presented all the things we’d have to do as players to return to golf in a safe manner. I don’t think we made it to the third page before the pushback came,” said Kevin Kisner, one of the four player-directors. “We felt there were too many things that would affect how guys would play and the competition would be affected negatively.

“And if it was going to affect the competition, there’s no way we were going to return.”

Testing was the biggest issue, and it remains the key moment for golf’s return. South Dakota-based Sanford Health is a title sponsor on the PGA Tour Champions. The company had a few idle trucks that had been used as mobile clinics in pop-up towns across North Dakota during the fracking boom.

Those could be converted into testing labs that traveled to tournaments and delivered test results quickly. That solved the biggest obstacle for golf — enough testing without taking away from the community and fast results.

“If you look at our return to golf, the partnership with Sanford was the single biggest development,” Levinson said.

There were a few nervous moments when golf returned, particularly at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut the third week back. Two players tested positive. So did the caddies for Graeme McDowell and Brooks Koepka, leading both players — along with Koepka’s brother, who made it through qualifying — to withdraw. Two other players withdrew just to be safe.

“The snowball is getting a little bigger,” McDowell said on the drive home to Florida.

Monahan didn’t flinch. He thought McDowell’s comment was fair and accurate. And he tightened the protocols, including a warning that for players or caddies who tested positive, the tour would no longer pay for their self-isolation if they were not following the health and safety plan.

Monahan said the tour was prepared to shut down if necessary, though he says it was never close to doing that. Once golf got through six events, he felt other cities had enough evidence the plan was working.

The surprise for Monahan was not that the tour made it back to The Players Championship without interruption, but that the COVID situation was not farther along. Fans are just now coming back with regularity, limited in numbers.

“But I’m thankful we are making progress. The fact we’ve been able to play every week has been fantastic,” he said. “Our players deserve all the credit. You can set the best plan. But if the players, caddies, everybody doesn’t follow it, you may not be able to sustain it.”

Ultimately, it was about the players.

It was different to not be allowed on the golf course until test results were back. To get meals in a box instead of a feast in player dining. To avoid restaurants on the road. To play some events where families were not allowed.

“I remember multiple conversations where he (Monahan) was like, ‘Guys, if you all can’t buy into what we have to do, we can wait until a vaccination is available to everybody,’” Kisner said. “That could a year, 18 months, two years. If we’re going to go back to play, we have to make some major changes.”

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