Tour Confidential: Would PGA Tour players resist social-distancing measures in competition?

PGA Tour pro rakes sand trap

The PGA Tour is exploring expanding social distancing guidelines in competition, including playing without rakes in bunkers.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss the PGA Tour exploring social distancing guidelines, a potential Ryder Cup without fans, the Match II and more. 

1. As part of its scheduled resumption in mid-June, the PGA Tour told it is exploring expanding social distancing guidelines in competition. Under the prospective mandates, players could be required to putt with the flagstick in, play without rakes in bunkers, and pull their own clubs to minimize contact with caddies, among other changes. Three-time Tour winner Scott Stallings said not all players would get on board with the changes. “I just don’t think there’s any way guys are going to do that,” he told our James Colgan. “Guys are not going to play for their livelihood with no rakes in the bunker and no caddies.” If indeed the Tour enacts these measures, would you agree that players would push back?

Sean Zak, senior editor (@Sean_Zak): Some probably will, but they’ll really look like sore thumbs. Are you really going to complain about an imperfect bunker when you could just be at home spending your money and not making any? Anyone who complains will not be embraced by fans, but then again, this is the Groupthink Tour. Their opinions tend to all be the same by the end of a tournament.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Playing for “their livelihood with no rakes in the bunker and no caddies.” Egad. The horrors! Not even Dickens could have dreamed up such hardship. I’m sure Stallings is right. Some players will push back, and they’ll look as ridiculous as the above sounds.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): The bunker thing is getting a lot of play, but there could be an easy solution: Why not have one designated raker per hole who cleans up after every player? But the larger point is that sports is going to be different for all of us when it returns, and the players would be wise to get on board.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: I think the game would be improved at every level without rakes in bunkers. Return to them their dignity. They are traps. They are to be avoided. The players will have to conform, or there won’t be a tournament in which to play.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): I don’t see this being an issue, at least from the Tour’s bigger names. Ever since they officially canceled the Players, it’s been mostly sunshine and roses when it comes to Tour players and the rulesmakers. I would say the far bigger issue would be if players felt there was no effort being made to bring golf back, but that’s clearly not the case. I’m sure Stallings will come around.

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2. We’re about 40 days out from the Tour’s scheduled return, at the Charles Schwab Challenge. What’s the biggest challenge the Tour faces between now and then to make that event successful?

Zak: The biggest challenge is obviously making sure 100 percent of the people involved are virus-free. Not 90 percent that is “probably” 100 percent. Not even 98 percent of people tested. 100 percent. Assuring 100 percent of anything in this world is difficult. Can the PGA Tour do it during the most uncertain of times? I think I am properly a skeptic.

Sens: The biggest challenge is entirely beyond the Tour’s control. Widespread testing has to be readily available around the country by then. How can the Tour stage an event where a bunch of professional golfers get easy access to testing when the average person can’t? Sure, the Tour could do it, but it would be a bad look and the wrong thing to do.

Shipnuck: Unless they test every person on the grounds every single day, how can there be 100 percent certainty? Even then, there can be a breakdown – for example, a security guard late to his shift hops a fence and evades the test and then introduces the virus to the tournament venue. Or the test is administered incorrectly and fails to detect someone just developing the virus. I think the biggest challenge is getting folks to accept that certainty is impossible and some risk is inevitable if we’re all going to press forward.

Dethier: This is sort of ambiguous, but the biggest challenge is the same that every business and governmental entity in the country faces: knowing the trade-off between opening and staying closed. It’s always going to be a calculation. At the moment, it’s clear it would be irresponsible to gather large groups of people at PGA Tour events. In 40 days, it’s probably going to be murkier. There are plenty of positives to holding a Tour event (and plenty of negatives that go along with canceling one) so the biggest challenge is how to balance those forces against the very real threat to human life that is posed by the coronavirus. Not an equation we learned in school.

Bamberger: That’s well-said, Dylan. Life offers no guarantees, and the idea of any environment being 100 percent safe is unrealistic and has never been realistic. So, as Dylan says, a trade-off. Life carries risks. We manage them.

3. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said the PGA of America is mulling the idea of a fan-less Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Rory McIlroy said he’d rather see the event pushed to next year as opposed to playing sans spectators. Fans’ raucous support of their sides is undoubtedly a huge part of the matches. If it comes to it, would you rather see a fan-less Ryder Cup in 2020 or no Ryder Cup at all?

Zak: No. The Ryder Cup is not essential to fans, but fans seem essential to the Ryder Cup. I asked our Josh Sens last week if he’s really tuning in for a quiet Sunday singles match of Dustin Johnson and Alex Noren. Now, I took some liberties in making that question, but the essence of the Ryder Cup is completely different without tens of thousands of fans on the first tee. And the 18th green. And the fourth tee, and seventh green and 10th fairway, etc. It’s not the same as 2001, but we postponed the RC then when it didn’t make much sense. It’s an easy decision for me if it comes to that.

Sens: I agree that the Ryder Cup with fans is great theater. But that doesn’t mean a Ryder Cup without fans couldn’t be good theater. There’s precedent for very entertaining, high pressure golf being played without huge crowds or huge purses. The U.S. Amateur. The NCAA championships. The Walker Cup. I think it would be interesting to stage the Ryder Cup fan-free and see how well it holds up, unplugged.

Shipnuck: I hate the idea of playing it without fans, but we’re all desperate for sports. I say play it without fans if we must, especially since many of the big events slated for the summer may wind up getting canceled. Any golf is better than none at all.

Dethier: I’m with Shippy. If it were the last Ryder Cup ever, we should save it for a fan-friendly venue. But there will be more of these things! If they can play it safely, it would still be fantastic. Although I’m cringing in advance at the idea of that group of American fans singing lame songs in some sort of Zoom meeting. …

Bamberger: You could have a Ryder Cup with a very small group of fans who follow whatever guidelines are necessary. My vote would be to have the event, as best you can.

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4. The Match II is on. Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning will face Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in May in Florida for charity. We don’t know the exact format, but what bells and whistles would you like to see in play to improve the event from its first iteration?

Zak: Make it wacky as hell. One of the best aspects of the Skins Game in Japan was when four amateurs hit tee shots in a quick, sweet scramble with the pros. Force Tiger and Phil to hit tee shots and sit out the rest of the hole. Force the quarterbacks to be all-time putter for three holes. Anything creative will be better than The Match 1.0.

Sens: Zak is onto something there. I’d add at least a few holes of alternate-shot competition. Make Brady leave Phil in some impossible position and see how he gets out of it. Also: sprinkle some football skills challenges into the mix. We know Mickelson can throw the pigskin a bit. Can Tiger? Can either run a post pattern? Or at least limp their way through one?

Shipnuck: Yeah, the problem with the first Match was that it couldn’t decide if it was hokey entertainment or hard-core competition so it wound up being neither. By introducing amateurs, this edition is clearly the latter, so they need to mix up the format and have fun with it.

Dethier: They should just hold a “run-through” practice round match with these four guys, not tell them they’re filming it, and air that one. I’m excited for this, don’t get me wrong, but I’m already cringing at the forced banter.

Bamberger: Golf is complicated enough, and this event will draw viewers who don’t know it well. I’d have all four players hole out and count every stroke and add ’em up. In other words, not a better ball. So what the QBs do really matters. That will bring out their athleticism and their competitiveness. We will see them as they really are.

5. TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course is offering deeply discounted green fees. But there’s a catch – the famed island-green 17th is closed for an irrigation project until July 5. Is there another golf course at which a single hole is so essential to the overall experience of playing there?

Zak: Ahhh, probably Carnoustie’s 18th? The course is a brute, but not remarkable hole-by-hole. A lot of difficult par-4s that tend to blend together. But the 18th? Everyone knows how they played around that burn.

Sens: Playing Pebble without the 18th? Obviously, removing any number of the coastal holes at Pebble would change things dramatically. But given all the blimp’s-eye airtime it gets every year, I think the 18th is the one the average fan knows the best.

Dethier: Well, the Waste Management doesn’t exist in its current form without No. 16, but that’s sort of a cheating answer because I’m only talking about tournament play — not this Tour Confidential crew rolling in for a bucket-list round. There’s a larger question here, though: Is No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass the most famous single hole in the world? What else is close? 12 at Augusta? 7 at Pebble? It’s iconic! I’d be bummer to miss 18 at St. Andrews, I guess. But I’m not sure they’d ever close that thing.

Shipnuck: Nothing compares.

Bamberger: I would say Pebble without its 18th would be much worse. Such an iconic home, and if you’re not playing home, you haven’t really finished a thing. You could invent a par-3 on 16 at the Stadium Course and play two holes there, then walk from 16 green to 18 tee. You’d still have a full round.

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6. Hoops fans, rejoice — “The Last Dance” continues Sunday night with parts 3 and 4. If one golfer not named Tiger Woods gave you no-holds-barred access to produce a tell-all, 10-part documentary series, whom would you pick? (No duplicates, please!)

Zak: I’m going to avoid the obvious here (AK, John Daly, Mickelson), but I would really love to watch the full history of Bobby Jones.

Sens: Hmm, good question. Former Augusta caddie Carl Jackson would surely have some good tales to tell, a number of which he’s probably been too politice to ever share.

Shipnuck: It has to be Phil. He’s had such a long career, filled with triumph and heartbreak, and off the course, it has been non-stop drama.

Dethier: The intrigue of Anthony Kim is tempting, but I think he actually exists better as a mythic figure — the true story might be a letdown (but yes, I’d watch the hell out of it). To me, it’s Rory McIlroy. He’s a character with real depth, and despite his candid press conferences, there’s so much we don’t know about the guy.

Bamberger: Old Tom.

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