News & Opinion

Major pro tours must face reality when fans return

LPGA rookie Yui Kawamoto of Japan
LPGA rookie Yui Kawamoto of Japan competes with safety in mind during the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration last month, but getting spectators to cover up – and stay covered up – could be another matter as the major professional tours begin to reopen the turnstiles.

It’s one thing to mandate safety precautions as spectators line the ropes again, but can the many retired volunteers be the enforcers?

What does golf do when fans come back?

It’s one of the most difficult questions facing the PGA, European and LPGA tours plus the USGA, PGA of America, Augusta National and the R&A through 2021.

Next week, the Bermuda Championship will sell up to 500 general-admission tickets as spectators return to the PGA Tour for the first time since the season restarted in June amid the coronavirus pandemic. A limited number of spectators also will be allowed at the following week's event, the Houston Open, but spectators will not be allowed at the Masters Tournament on Nov. 12-15.

On the Bermuda Championship's website, the health-and-safety measures require that spectators wear masks upon entry to the grounds and keep the face guards in place throughout the golf course, except when eating or drinking. The guidelines also call for social distancing by maintaining 6 feet of separation wherever possible.

The tournament’s policies follow a PGA Tour directive earlier this month that makes masks mandatory at all PGA Tour events. The only exceptions are for players and caddies when in the practice areas and on the golf course. When players walk from the locker room to their cars, they are required to wear masks.

The PGA Tour’s measures follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but how will they be enforced?

Most golf events have volunteers who handle fan movement. When necessary, local law-enforcement officers or professional security personnel are summoned, which is rare and usually due to over-served fans.

These volunteers tend to be older and often are not trained in security. To expect them to police spectators for mask wearing or social distancing might seem to be too much to ask.

The PGA Tour remains committed to these safety measures and will deny admittance to anyone who refuses to wear a mask, or remove a fan who does not comply while on the grounds.

It’s a laudable goal and likely can be enforced with only 500 spectators a day at the Bermuda Championship. But what about early next year, when the Tour arrives in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently removed restrictions on the number of spectators at sporting events? How realistic is it to expect enforcement?

Some 2021 PGA Tour events already are selling tickets. For the PGA Championship on May 20-23 at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort’s Ocean Course, daily tickets and premium club seating are sold out.

A COVID-19 vaccine remains under development, so the measures outlined by the PGA Tour likely will be in place far into 2021. A gathering of 40,000 or so spectators would have to be policed mostly by volunteers. Even if a vaccine were to be made readily available in the first quarter of the year, how much of the population is likely to get vaccinated? 

According to a Pew Research study in September, 49 percent of respondents said they probably would not get vaccinated, which grew from just 27 percent in May. The results seemingly would force mask wearing and social distancing far into the future.

Because mask wearing has become such a polarizing issue among Americans, it would be easy to envision having some spectators who had not been vaccinated remove their masks at tournaments compared with those fans who will receive the vaccine and wear their masks.

That would make each golf tournament a political war of wills, with the volunteers caught in the middle, trying to keep the peace.

Virtually everyone associated with the game wants to see the return of spectators, who are necessary to support the events’ charities, but is it possible that the major professional tours are overreaching?

It is easy to demand masks and social distancing, but it will be much more difficult to enforce those policies, as the world has learned.

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