‘We can pull this off’: As PGA Tour eyes June return, host city, event prep for unusual scene
For all the questions swirling around the PGA Tour’s plans to restart its season, this much is clear: The city of Fort Worth, Tex., is ready.
“We’re preparing as if it’s a done deal,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told GOLF.com.
It was midday Monday, and Price had just emerged from a planning meeting for the Charles Schwab Challenge, which has been rescheduled for June 8-14 at Colonial Country Club, the first event in the Tour’s proposed relaunch.
“The situation is obviously very fluid, and we’ll be keeping a close watch on it,” Price said. “But I’m very optimistic we can pull this off.”
Price said that she and other city officials have been in frequent conversation with tournament organizers in Fort Worth to address logistical questions surrounding the competition, which would garner much attention as one of the — if not the — first major televised sports events since the coronavirus brought the nation to a grinding halt. While not all of those questions have been resolved, Price said that others were close to being ironed out.
For starters, Price said, it has been decided that all players and caddies will be housed in either one or two local hotels.
“Probably one, but we might split them into two if we need to,” she said.
The plan, Price said, is for those players and caddies to be tested daily at their hotel, rather than at the course, though she said it was still unclear what type of testing would be carried out each day: a screening for the coronavirus itself, or a check for the symptoms it causes, such as an elevated temperature.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has stressed the importance of “widespread, large-scale testing across our country,” as well as the “need to test players caddies and other constituents before we return.”
In response to an email requesting more details on planning for the Colonial, a Tour spokesperson said that the Tour is not ready to share specifics, “as our potential testing process/timing/procedures and the program itself are still being investigated and developed.”
Price said her Monday meeting did not focus on how and where testing might be conducted on other people involved with the event, such as tournament volunteers and members of the media.
“Not everything has been settled,” Price said.
The Colonial will be held without spectators. But even in slimmed-down form, staging a PGA Tour event can require a minimum of 700 to 800 people, including course maintenance crews, caterers, scorekeepers and security.
Colonial tournament director Michael Tothe said that in past years, the event has drawn on the assistance of some 1,600 volunteers. This year, he said, that number would likely be trimmed to around 500, drawn from the North Texas area to minimize the need for long-distance travel.
How players and caddies will get to the event is another matter. Defending champion Kevin Na has committed to play. He lives in Las Vegas, more than 1,000 miles away. Many competitors and their caddies will no doubt fly commercial, then board a plane again after the event.
Given the current low volume of air travel, with airports quiet and many planes flying at less than 50 percent capacity, taking a commercial flight is “actually pretty safe,” according to Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
“On a less than half-empty plane, maintaining social distancing should not be overly difficult,” Dr. Schaffner said.
As for other health and safety questions on the ground in Fort Worth, “the angel is in the details,” Schaffner said.
And when it comes to staging a PGA Tour event, those details go on and on.
Will scorekeepers and security guards be required to wear masks? What about TV production crews? Should players and their caddies be urged to socially distance on the course, or alter their traditional interactions, like, say, by cleaning a club with a sanitizing wipe before handing it back and forth?
If that sounds silly, it shouldn’t, said Dr. Jennifer Babik, an associate professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who specializes in infectious diseases. Dr. Babik said that no reasonable precaution should be taken off the board, including the possibility of players and caddies wearing masks themselves, at least while walking to their ball.
“You wouldn’t expect the golfer to wear the mask while they’re hitting,” Dr. Babik said. “But if you do while walking to the ball, you’re actually mirroring broader public health measures. And remember, you’re on TV. This is also an opportunity to be a good role model.”
As the first major sport planning to return to action, professional golf has a lot on the line, with a chance to come off as a shining example or a cautionary tale. Tothe, the Colonial director, recognizes the magnitude of the task, and the uncertainties surrounding it. Up to now, Tothe said, he and his colleagues have focused largely on matters involving testing and social distancing. But he knows that other questions remain, including many that have yet to be raised.
“Think about your own life and how many ways you’ve had to adapt?” Tothe said. “There’s no way you could have possibly anticipated them all. We’re trying to think of everything, but I’m sure there are questions we haven’t considered. Our approach is to hope for the best, plan for the worst and anything in between won’t surprise us.”
With the scheduled tournament date more than a month off, a lot could still change on the ground. Mayor Price said that her office, like the PGA Tour itself, would remain in close communication with public health and medical experts and abide by their recommendations. She said that county health officials could put the kibosh on the tournament if they thought it presented an unacceptable risk, as could the governor’s office. Thus far, she said, both entities have offered nothing but support for the tournament.
“Our goal is to put our best foot forward, provide some nice exposure for the event and for our city, and play a positive role in the reawakening of the economy,” Price said.
Professional golf is moving toward uncharted waters. In Fort Worth, for now, it’s full sail ahead.
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