News & Opinion

A beacon of light in a PGA Tour season with too much doubt

Harbour Town Golf Links Lighthouse
The 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C., site of this week’s RBC Heritage event on the PGA Tour

Having passed health tests of Week 1, PGA Tour turns toward Hilton Head as season restart gains momentum. But there’s a better way forward for local markets and charities affected by these fan-free events, and it would take a buy-in from Tour players

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Coronavirus suspended golf seemingly for about as long as a Charles Barkley backswing. It was a three-month pause that we couldn’t have expected, certainly not from a pandemic.

In a prelude to its return last week to competition, the PGA Tour enacted what appears to be a thorough protocol for testing the participants in the new world of fan-free tournaments. It began without a reported hitch last week at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The Korn Ferry Tour recorded four positive coronavirus tests – one player and three caddies – who were flagged before its season restart and did not participate.

The PGA Tour’s “Health and Safety Plan,” a 37-page outline that was sent to players last month, features multiple layers of mandatory COVID-19 testing for players, caddies and tournament officials, plus temperature checks and a nasal swab/saliva screening. Players and caddies are being tested before arrival as the Tour attempts to restart play in a bubble of sorts.

In addition to being closed to the public for at least the first five weeks, the tournaments will face other restrictions, including limited media coverage, as the PGA Tour follows NASCAR as the first major professional sports leagues to return to action. The Tour is proceeding with caution in an effort to avoid the spread of a virus that has infected about 2.16 million Americans and killed about 118,000.

For those players who are comfortable with the return to competition – 15 of the top 20 in the world ranking, including the top five, played at Colonial, and the top five are in the Hilton Head field this week for the RBC Heritage – the plan seems to be as all-encompassing as possible, given so many potential variables.

The Tour’s testing protocol also will include local tournament staffs.

But what about the individual tournaments? They lack the financial resources of the PGA Tour. Their local charities and foundations depend on tournament profits for significant percentages of their annual operating budgets.

Two established tournament directors, Steve Wilmot of the RBC Heritage and Nathan Grube of the Travelers Championship, shared some interesting insights about dealing with coronavirus and the fan-free mandate.

Both directors have shifted their focus from special events such as pro-ams and building tournament infrastructure for fans to COVID-19 safety protocols and the security needed to keep fans off the tournament grounds, not on them.

Wilmot and Gruber expect the pent-up demand for competition from the players’ long layoff to strengthen their tournament fields. Rory McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked player, intends to play the first three events. That will put the Northern Irishman, who had six top-5 finishes in as many starts this season, including a victory in Shanghai in the fall, before he faded to a T-32 on Sunday in Fort Worth, at Hilton Head for the first time since 2009.

The Hilton Head stop traditionally follows the season’s first major championship at Augusta National, but the Masters has been moved to November in a massive reordering of the Tour’s 2020 schedule. That left the RBC Heritage to fill a mid-June slot vacated by the U.S. Open, which moved to mid-September.

“RBC lost the Canadian Open that they sponsor,” Wilmot said, “and it was a great opportunity for them to still have one of their tournaments.”

The RBC Heritage lost about $1.5 million because of tournament-preparation costs that were wiped out when the April event was postponed. Some of the other events probably are further into the red.

Tournament sponsors for both events have been supportive of local charities, with many receiving full donations and other help.

“While the loss of ticket and concession revenue will impact the tournament, we’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution to tournament charities in 2020, when they need it most,” Grube said.

There’s the rub. Coronavirus has affected virtually every American, but the charities that depend on PGA Tour tournament donations to operate have been left vulnerable, too.

In 2019, RBC Heritage donated $3.2 million and Travelers contributed $2.1 million to various local charities. One of the RBC Heritage’s beneficiaries, food pantry Second Helpings of Hilton Head Island, was named the PGA Tour’s 2018 Charity of the Year.

So, I have a modest solution.

The PGA Tour is taking a risk by starting so soon. At least part of that timeline is to help its brand when major sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey and football have yet to restart.

PGA Tour players should donate 20 percent of prize money from events with no fans – at least the first four tournaments, according to the Tour – to local charities in those respective markets. Prize money at the RBC Heritage is listed at $7.1 million, with the winner to receive $1.278 million. At the Travelers, the $7.4 million event will pay $1.332 million to the champion. Something closer to $1 million for each champion should be acceptable.

The PGA Tour members in the two recent made-for-TV golf matches donated their time and money to coronavirus relief. Why not build on that precedent?

For Wilmot and Grube, as it is for the PGA Tour’s staff and players, it’s a whole new world. COVID-19 has been a quadruple bogey for most of the world. Professional golf tournaments might seem to be inconsequential, but perhaps they can help lead us back to a new normal, whatever that might be. Charles Barkley’s swing might be in disrepair, but the rest of the world doesn’t have to be. Hopefully, we find the solution sooner than later, for the players, fans and charities.

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