A major step on the rocky road back towards some kind of normality

The first round of the PGA Championship from San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park will represent a significant milestone
A major step on the rocky road back towards some kind of normality

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Signage reminds people to practice social distancing at a mobile testing unit prior to the Charles Schwab Challenge in June. Professional tours have resumed in the last two months and with only minor setbacks. Picture: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Tomorrow is a day that barely seemed possible back in the dark days of March when the world was struggling to get to grips with Covid-19.

Its relentless sweep from far east to west wreaked havoc in ways much more devastating than any damage done to professional sport but golf did not escape and the first round of the PGA Championship from San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park will represent a significant milestone on the road back to some kind of normality.

That it will be the first major championship in history to be played without spectators and the withdrawal of Branden Grace from the field due to a positive Covid-19 test last week are reminders that elite golf is no more out of the coronavirus woods than any other sector of society.

Yet there is also much cause for celebration that a world-class field is able to assemble from all four corners of the globe and lock horns in a socially distant manner over 72 holes for one of the biggest prizes in the game.

The journey to this point has not been without its tribulations.

Back in March, as the number of tournaments either cancelled or postponed began to rack up, there appeared little prospect of any 2020 season at all being rescued.

That feeling was amplified by the abrupt halt called to the PGA Tour’s flagship Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass following the completion of just 18 holes in Florida.

Indeed, we will see neither the Claret Jug nor the Ryder Cup lifted this summer and there are simply not enough weeks remaining in 2020 for all but a select few other tournaments lost in the interests of public health and safety to be resurrected.

Yet the professional tours have resumed in the last two months and with only minor setbacks. Golfers have not quite been subjected to the biosecure bubbles between tournaments that enabled, for example, European football leagues and US basketball’s NBA to resume without major dressing-room outbreaks.

Yet nor has it been subjected to the number of positive test results that Major League Baseball has seen in recent weeks as it has attempted to begin a shortened 60-game season with teams remaining on home-and-away schedules.

That is not to say there have not been setbacks. While testing has been frequent, the PGA Tour did not mandate its members to stay in on-site or designated tournament hotels, meaning it could only control what happened at their well-policed and spectator-free courses. There was a positive test after the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first tournament back, when Nick Watney was forced to withdraw from the following week’s RBC Heritage in the South Carolina resort town of Hilton Head Island.

“They’re seeming to not take it very seriously,” Justin Thomas remarked of Hilton Head during the tournament. “It’s an absolute zoo around here. There’s people everywhere. The beaches are absolutely packed. Every restaurant, from what I’ve seen when I’ve been driving by, is absolutely crowded.” 

By the time the PGA Tour reached its next destination, the Travelers Championship further up the east coast in Connecticut, the withdrawal list was growing.

Aside from a positive Covid-19 test for Cameron Champ, there was also caution from Graeme McDowell, Brooks Koepka, Chase Koepka, and Webb Simpson. McDowell’s long-standing caddie Ken Comboy had contracted the virus flying from Hilton Head to the north-east.

So too the Koepka brothers. Brooks’s caddie, Portrush man Ricky Elliott, also tested positive while Chase had played a practice round with McDowell and Brooks. None of the golfers had tested positive but each had been in contact with someone who had a family member in Simpson’s case.

The caution remains and even though permission from the White House came for incoming participants to skip the otherwise mandatory quarantine period en route to Harding Park, both Pádraig Harrington and Lee Westwood elected to withdraw and stay home in Europe.

Maybe that is the shape of things to come in a world still searching for a vaccine against Covid-19.

Even the world’s biggest championships will not attract everyone, but it’s certainly great to see the ones who have bitten the bullet start swinging those clubs once more.

Golf's pandemic timeline

February 16 - LPGA Tour’s Australian Women’s Open concludes, the last event to be played by female pros for nearly six months.

March 8 - Jorge Campillo wins the Qatar Masters. It will be the last event to be played on the European Tour for four months.

March 12 - As the opening round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida gets underway in front of ticket-holders, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announces that all tournaments are to proceed without spectators from the following day. At the end of the day’s play, Monahan announces the Tour’s flagship event is cancelled. There will be no more competitive golf before June.  

March 13 - Augusta National postpones the Masters, set to start on April 10.

March 17 - The PGA of America postpones the PGA Championship, set to start on May 11 as the PGA Tour postpones tournaments through to May 10.

April 6 - The R&A cancels The 149th Open in 2020 and says it will be played at Royal St George’s in 2021, pushing back the 150th Open to 2022 while the USGA postpones the US Open from June to September 17-20 at Winged Foot in New York and Augusta National gives the postponed Masters an intended date of November 12-15.

May 17 - Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matt Wolff play a televised charity fundraiser at the legendary Seminole GC in Florida, a first glimpse of the world’s best players in a spectator-free competitive environment.

June 8 - PGA Tour restarts behind closed doors at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial in Texas.

July 9 - European Tour restarts season at the Austrian Open.

July 31 - LPGA season resumes in Ohio.

August 6 -  USPGA Championship, the first major of the year, due to begin at TPC Harding Park, San Francisco.

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