News & Opinion

PGA Tour gives a clinic on how to reopen

Jon Rahm wins 2020 Memorial Tournament
Though there were few live witnesses to Jon Rahm's victory July 19 at the Memorial Tournament, none was created from a cardboard cutout, and there were no canned sound effects piped into the event.

Compare professional golf’s restart in a bubble with what’s going on in baseball and elsewhere in sports, with the canned noise, cutout fans and air of desperation

Perhaps you’ve watched some of Major League Baseball’s post-coronavirus return in empty stadiums around the country. Fox Sports televised three games last Saturday, the first from Wrigley Field, where thousands of digitally generated fans packed the bleachers in the network’s attempt to simulate “actual” conditions as much as humanly possible, so to speak.

If you’d been out drinking the night before, this might have created additional visual turmoil. A pitcher would hang a curveball in an utterly barren ballpark, and the batter would blast it into the vacant right-field seats for a home run, at which point some dude in the Fox production truck would instantaneously fill the stands with cheering spectators.

And now, if you’ll please rise for Rod Serling’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The Giants-Dodgers meeting that followed had the same fake fans but also included 50 or so cardboard cutouts sitting behind home plate: our national pastime played with the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover as a backdrop. If COVID-19 has done us any favors, it was forcing Fox to relinquish its U.S. Open rights (NBC will televise) due to its contractual obligations with the NFL.

Otherwise, we’d be treated to some virtual fat guy holding a cup of Budweiser and howling, “Go in the hole!” after every shot to the green.

It all adds up to the world we live in: a troubled sphere in a very strange year. The PGA Tour was one of the first sports leagues to resume competition, and it has done so by maintaining the game’s dignity in an understated, inoffensive manner. Baseball squabbled for weeks on end over the parameters of its resumption. This is what it came up with?

Actually, this is what happens when a bunch of TV people with nothing better to do start thinking they’re more important than the games they broadcast to the public. In that sense, the Tour gets it right on a consistent basis. CBS might stink, but that’s not Camp Ponte Vedra’s fault. Commissioner Jay Monahan and his merry crew surely prefer the Eye’s bland, middle-of-the-short-grass coverage. It might put you to sleep, but it hasn’t dubbed in crowd reactions or organ music in a ridiculous attempt to leave us thinking a deadly pandemic doesn’t exist.

Too many bells and whistles = way too much noise. That said, pro golf just isn’t as much fun to watch without the reflexive response of a large and enthusiastic gallery. The Tour in a bubble is way better than no Tour at all, even with Nick Faldo presiding over the action. Though a fair number of events don’t draw many onsite spectators, anyway, the majors always produce a vivacious, viewer-friendly atmosphere.

That element will be notably absent (and sorely missed) next week at the PGA Championship. Golf’s biggest tournaments require a certain festive ambience. Players feed off that energy, and the best of the best often reach a supreme level at gatherings of the utmost significance. Those who run the U.S. Open and the Masters still haven’t announced whether they’ll allow fans to attend, and for good reason.

If there’s any way the public can be included, be it through safety provisions and/or reduced attendance, it should and will be done.

Rory McIlroy recently admitted to having a hard time getting adrenalized for tournaments without spectators; the roar of the crowd certainly can have an intoxicating effect on those who prompt it. Tiger Woods fed off the mayhem for years, thriving amid the commotion while those paired with him shriveled into competitive non-factors. Golf can be difficult enough when nobody’s there to watch. When 10,000 people are following you from hole to hole, the boys can get separated from the men before the seventh tee.

It changes things in ways we’ll never know and can’t measure. Is McIlroy actually a better golfer when people turn out to root for him? The guy was a four-time major champion by age 25 but has gone six years without winning a fifth. He can’t blame the drought on the coronavirus, but it stands to reason that a player who accomplished so much so quickly has struggled to find the formula after the thrill is gone.

Others with immense talent often win their first events at lightly attended tournaments, albeit against weaker fields. We saw that last summer with Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa. Even Woods’ inaugural Tour victory came as a rookie in Las Vegas, witnessed live by perhaps the smallest group of fans ever to watch him play.

It’s just a game until you make it your business, at which point success depends in a large part on your ability to perform with all that money on the line and all those people on the grounds. The game’s graveyard is full of decorated amateurs who became resounding flops as pros. Maybe some of them just weren’t cut out for the lifestyle. Maybe others simply lost their competitive ambition.

And maybe a lot of them couldn’t handle the pressure. The heat of the moment on a Sunday afternoon. The chance to redefine yourself as a champion, to bask in all the adulation and leave town with enough loot to buy a great, big house. If you don’t think a golf course full of passionate, partisan, pumped-up patrons plays a huge role in the competitive outcome, that’s cool. Fox Sports has some baseball you can watch.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.