News & Opinion

Golf in 2021 will look a lot like 2020 version

2020 RBC Heritage social distancing Harbour Town
Expect the sign of the times for golf in 2020, such as at the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, S.C., to remain in force when play resumes in 2021.

Until the pandemic subsides, recreational golf will lack many of its usual features while touring pros go about business as (un)usual

As much of the nation – not all – breathes easier now that a COVID vaccine is being injected into the arms of healthcare workers and others, be warned not to believe that the world and our corner of it will get back to normal any time soon. In fact, every facet of our game is likely to look in 2021 much the same as it has in 2020.

We’re still going to be socially distanced on the course, putting with the flagsticks in, sliced-up swimming-pool noodles in the holes, no bunker rakes, ball washers or water coolers for months, maybe all year. And that’s just for us rank-and-file amateurs.

For the elite professionals, it will continue to be business as (un)usual, carrying on with coronavirus protocols established when the PGA Tour restarted in July and the other world tours followed soon after.

And for media – print, digital, radio and television – the policy of limiting the number of people onsite, just enough to get the show on TV, carry the Tour’s message or impartially inform the public will be pandemically status quo.

For the bill-paying public, it will have to resume consuming its live professional golf on television rather than in person. It’s not immediately known what the policy will be concerning spectators, but PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has expressed a desire to be “safely reintroducing fans” by early March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Without debating the merits of whether golf should reopen completely and allow thousands of spectators – with or without masks – to return to tournaments, let’s look instead at the practical reality.

Vaccines won’t allow us to go back immediately to what we were doing this time a year ago. The way that the medicine is being manufactured and distributed, many of us who choose to be vaccinated won’t get the shot before April or May, according to reports.

We also don’t know whether the vaccines will prevent someone from spreading the virus even after having been vaccinated. Those data are not in yet. In the meantime, scientists predict that the worst is to come over the next few months.

That means we still will be required – or strongly suggested – to wear masks, socially distance and avoid large gatherings, such as at golf tournaments. Which is why there were only two PGA Tour events since the restart to allow fans. The Bermuda Championship permitted a few hundred spectators, and the Houston Open sold 2,000 tickets daily.

Waste Management Phoenix Open 2018
Tournament officials intend to admit spectators to the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale for the PGA Tour's Phoenix Open in early February, but don't expect anything like the usual stadium hoopla this year.

The Houston model no doubt has been studied by other tournament directors and could be replicated in some form by early 2021 events. The Phoenix Open, for example, intends to build a smaller and more socially distant stadium around the par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale for the Feb. 4-7 event. But it’s more likely that most tournaments will err on the side of caution and play without fans.

All eyes will be on the Masters in the run-up to the April 8-11 major to see what Augusta National officials decide to do about having patrons on the grounds and, if so, how many and what precautions and/or restrictions will be set in place.

Compared with other sports, golf has earned high marks for protecting its players and caddies and ensuring that tournament sponsors can achieve their desired exposure on television and other media.

Beginning with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial in June, no PGA Tour event was postponed or canceled due to a high number of players infected with COVID. The Tour’s screening protocol was so effective that only 18 PGA Tour players reportedly have tested positive since the restart. The LPGA Tour has reported 27 positive tests among its players.

The NBA operated the end of its 2020 season and the playoffs in a bubble in Orlando and had no positive test results. But what’s going to happen now that the 2020-21 season has started and players aren’t tethered to their campus and free to make their own decisions about their behavior?

Look at the number of Major League Baseball games that were postponed: 43 in a truncated 60-game schedule. Football is even worse. In the college game, at least 150 NCAA Division I games were postponed or canceled. Eighteen NFL games have been rescheduled. And dozens of NCAA Division I basketball games and early-season tournaments have been canceled. In fact, there’s a proposal out there that March Madness could be played with all 68 teams in one city. Indianapolis, the home of the NCAA, has been mentioned in every report.

Golf can’t be played in a bubble, and its players will more and more travel on their own instead of charter flights that were used at the beginning of the restart. Players and caddies must be commended for doing the right thing while at home and on the road so that the professional tours could play uninterrupted since June.

But all it takes is for the players and caddies who were so diligent in 2020 to relax and believe that having a vaccine means life can return to the way it was. That kind of thinking will not only wipe out all the good will professional golf has stacked up since June but could put 2021 events, especially the early ones, squarely in harm’s way.

Golf giveth and golf taketh away but only through carelessness and recklessness.

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