ORLANDO, FL --- If a golf ball falls into the cup and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
PGA Tour golfer Sung Kang found out first hand during the opening round of last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, TX, when he aced the 13th hole.
Normally, a hole-in-one elicits a huge roar from the fans crowded around the green. The noise pretty much lets the golfer know what happened. This time, though, there was just a small smattering of applause.
“We were like 50 yards away, and they were like, it’s in the hole. I’m like, wow, it’s in the hole. It wasn’t really crazy,” Kang told the media after his round. “Nobody was really up there, only a few people out there just clapping a bit. I still appreciated it, though.”
Sound, or lack of it, was one of the main topics throughout the tournament’s four days.
The Charles Schwab Challenge was the Tour’s first event in 90 days after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world.
The event had everything a tournament could want: a strong field – the top five ranked players in the world, and 16 of the top 20; an historic course (this was the 73rd Tour event that Colonial has hosted; it’s also been the site of two majors); low scores – there were three 63s and four 64s carded; a large national TV audience; the eyes of the golf world; and good (though hot) weather.
What it lacked was fans. Ordinarily at a Tour event, there would be thousands of fans lining the fairways and ringing the greens. But, following the CDCs social-distancing guidelines, fans were not allowed on the course.
Throughout the four days, the only people on the course were the players and caddies, a limited number support staff and volunteers, and a skeleton broadcast crew. It was easily the smallest crowd that most of these golfers have played in front of during their professional careers.
‘Odd, Subdued’ Atmosphere
Awkward, subdued, odd, strange, and interesting were some of the words that the golfers used to describe the atmosphere. Some compared it to playing a practice round, or a college match, or a U.S. Open qualifier – where the fans following the player might consist of a few friends and family members.
At a typical PGA Tour stop, the crowd reacts enthusiastically to what’s happening. Here, there were no cheers after a player made a great shot, no greenside roars or groans after a golfer sank or missed a birdie putt, no eruptions as a player made a move up the scoreboard. Just silence.
“I told my caddie early on, I didn’t feel like I was hitting it as far because my adrenaline wasn’t up,” U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland told the media.
“When you have spectators and things, you get on a roll, and most of the time you feed off that,” Branden Grace said. “I remember when I won Hilton Head and played well in the majors, the crowd started getting behind you and you start feeling like you can’t do anything wrong. At the moment, (at Colonial) it’s just you and your caddie out there.”
Still, the Tour soldiered on, even continuing the tradition of having the starter announce the players on the first tee. After the starter, resplendent in his plaid sport coat, introduced each player, he alone applauded. Some players even performed a fake acknowledgement wave to the non-existent fans.
It will be that way for a while. The Tour makes four more stops sans fans before spectators are allowed on course, at the Memorial Tournament July 16-19 at Muirfield Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio. Even then, crowds will be restricted to about 8,000 fans – roughly 20 percent of Muirfield’s capacity.
Not that the players are complaining. They were happy to get back to competitive golf following a 13-week layoff.
“It’s what we have to do,” Rory McIlroy told the media. “It’s what we’re going to have to live with for the foreseeable future. If that’s what I have to do to be able to get out here and play on Tour and get back to work essentially, then I’m happy to do that.”
Still, it was a little strange for the course to be so quiet that television viewers could hear the sound of golf clubs clanking in a bag as player and caddie walked toward the next tee or down the fairway.
There were fans in the vicinity, though. Some stood behind chain-link fences outside of the club’s perimeter, and a few homes with yards bordering the course had erected small grandstands for spectators. But, if the usual Tour turnout of fans is an ocean of tens of thousands of people, then this was a puddle.
And, Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson reported the first “get in the hole” shout by a fan in 13 weeks. Some things never change.
A Good Test for Re-Start
Colonial represented a good first test back for the players. It is an old-fashioned, tight course with tree-lined fairways and a number of holes that dogleg, requiring golfers to shape their shots right and left. As such, it takes away a lot of the advantage that big hitters have on Tour courses.
After three months away, there were bound to be more than the usual number of mistakes and mishits, which were exacerbated by the lack of fans onsite. With no fans or grandstands, offline shots that normally would have been stopped by those grandstands went further astray, and lies in the rough that would have been improved due to heavy foot traffic were instead penalizing.
The layoff was apparent on the greens as well. During Sunday’s final round, about a half-dozen players missed practically gimme three-foot putts. Including one by Tour rookie Collin Murikawa on the first hole of a playoff, to help give the victory to Daniel Berger.
Even the best golfers in the world suffer the effects of three months of inactivity.
Given the turmoil that’s taken place across the country the past several weeks, a lot of fans undoubtedly were rooting for Harold Varner III to earn his first win. The popular and eloquent Varner, who is black, prior to the tournament had posted on social media his golf experiences while growing up in North Carolina, and last week participated with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in a video discussion about the demonstrations and civil unrest taking place throughout the country.
But Varner, who shot a 63 in the opening round and shared the 36-hole lead, faded to a tie for 19th.
Outside of the winner Berger, Monahan may have been the happiest person at Colonial on Sunday. All 487 tests for COVID-19 that the Tour had conducted during the tournament came back negative. And, the first tournament implementing a lengthy list of new protocols went off without any snafus.
“Listen, there is more work to be done,” Monahan told AP’s Ferguson. “But this is a phenomenal start to our return.
“If we…got into a situation where we were dealing with a number of positive tests, that’s something – candidly – that I lost a lot of sleep over the weeks that preceded coming.”
Overcoming Old Habits
The Tour now has a handbook about three-dozen pages long that deals with various health and social distancing protocols for players, caddies and others to follow. While players said they adhered to those policies as well as they could, there were numerous instances of caddies and players exchanging clubs and huddling over shot decisions, and post-match fist bumps and handshakes.
Old habits do die hard.
For his part, Berger told the media afterward that he practiced social distancing throughout the week. He rented a home within walking distance from the golf course, had a family member cook all his meals, and confined himself to the home and the course.
“I thought about the virus very few times this week,” he told Mike McAllister of pgatour.com. “You know, it’s been such a big part of our lives for the last two months, and I feel like I just tried to do everything I can to be safe, and that’s all you really can do. You wash your hands, you don’t touch your face, you wear a mask when you can, you social distance….”
Yes, it was a little strange, even a little weird for a PGA Tour tournament to be played without fans. But, it’s good that golf is back.
“Even though there weren’t any fans out there,” Berger said, “you knew there were millions of people watching at home.”
That silence proved golden for Berger.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
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