- Ian O’Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.” ESPN Radio broadcasts “The Ian O’Connor Show” every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »
If you cannot sell winning or success to your fans, the next best thing you can sell them is hope. The PGA Tour is now dealing in the currency of hope, something we need in America as much as we have ever needed anything.
People are still getting sick, and people are still dying in hospitals while surrounded not by loved ones holding their hands but by heroic and masked strangers keeping a necessary distance. The families of the victims do not care about the resumption of sports, or the resumption of anything else, while they grieve over everything the coronavirus has stolen from them.
I lived with COVID-19 last month as my stricken wife fought to regain her health at home, and as my sister was locked in a life-and-death struggle inside a critical care unit before rallying toward a full recovery. I can assure you that the rescheduling of the Charles Schwab Challenge did not make my list of top 500 concerns at the time.
But when the PGA Tour announced Thursday morning that professional golf will return — sans the fans — at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 11-14, to be followed by a weekly run of tour events through Thanksgiving (with at least the first four to be staged without galleries), I felt something I hadn’t felt for so long. It felt pretty good, too. It felt as if a devastated sports community was finally punching back at an invisible and ruthless enemy with a bulletin that hopefully touched people who don’t even follow golf, people who couldn’t name a single player outside of Tiger Woods.
“We are very confident we will be able to play the second week in June,” said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s chief tournaments and competitions officer.
How will the tour navigate travel restrictions to help the dozens of players and caddies who live outside the United States? How often will tournament participants (not just the players) be tested for COVID-19 on site during an average week? If, as tour chief of operations Tyler Dennis said, “Our barometer is simply the health and safety of everyone involved,” will an event be immediately and automatically shut down if a single test comes back positive?
So little time to answer so many questions. Though everyone is fully aware of what Pazder called “a thirst for live sports in our country,” the tour executive maintained that this announcement did not signal that the tour was “rushing back to satiate that desire. We’re simply announcing the resumption of our schedule. We’re only going to do that when we are sure that it will be safe and responsible to do that. And if a byproduct of that is that golf fans and sports fans in general are excited about tuning in to the Charles Schwab Challenge on June 11th, that’s great.”
Golf’s elders believe they can manage a series of tournaments through the summer, including the PGA Championship in August, and a loaded fall lineup featuring the U.S. Open (near New Rochelle, New York — once a virus hotspot — in mid-September), the Ryder Cup (the next week in Wisconsin) and the Masters (in November). They believe they can keep players, caddies, event staffers, production crews and media members as safe as possible while allowing for the possibility that health officials will greenlight the addition of large galleries along the way.
Man, that sure does sound like an overly optimistic plan of attack.
And that’s OK. Those plans can be scaled back on the fly, or scrapped altogether if the pandemic demands it. But for now, if given a choice between too much optimism and no optimism at all, I know which door I’m picking.
Major league baseball might or might not have a season, and the NBA and NHL might or might not finish theirs. College football might need to be moved to the spring, or benched until the fall of 2021. Who knows whether we will see Tom Brady throw his first pass for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September or whether Brady, an avid golfer who has given Phil Mickelson credible swing-speed advice, will start a deferred NFL season around the same time a 50-year-old Mickelson tees it up at Augusta National Golf Club.
The calendar has worked against us for so long, offering a mind-numbing series of blank dates and blank pages. On Thursday, golf made the calendar our friend for a change.
It’s true that some, or all, of these tournaments might not get played. In the end, this announcement might serve as little more than a high-profile shoutout to the chief benefactors of a shuttered tour that is bleeding money. Even if golf’s reopening ultimately gets pushed back a month or two, wiping out the Colonial event, how often will content-starved outlets refer to Charles Schwab between now and then?
Let’s hope this day proves to be more than a pick-me-up for sponsors. Let’s hope we see Woods, Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka firing at the flags sooner rather than later in a game that might be the best available bridge back to sports normalcy.
Golf does not require much, if any, human contact. Players do not tackle, block and blitz each other. As independent contractors in an individual sport, golfers don’t huddle or watch film in crowded conference rooms or gather in close locker room quarters for pregame pep talks. They compete outdoors in big, open fields that can accommodate social-distancing needs. Extra spacing can be created around the most confining areas (tee boxes), and a ceiling can be put on the number of players allowed on the practice range and putting green.
Of course, everyone involved on site has to be tested and cleared to participate. So much has to go right for this to work. So many positive developments need to unfold in the fight against the pandemic that, yes, it’s hard to imagine golf being played less than two months from now.
And yet it is good to see these events listed. Just as it was good to hear New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tell his brother, Chris, on CNN that he has talked with New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon about the benefit of playing major league games this summer without customers in the stands.
“I think it would be good for the country,” the governor said.
Pazder said his confidence that the tour can resume playing at Colonial in June is based on “changes and developments being made in the world of testing” that will mitigate the risk of infection. Local, state and national health officials will serve as the judge and jury on that.
Meanwhile, let’s all take a moment or two to appreciate the fact that we have an actual sports calendar again. The people who run the PGA Tour can’t promise that golf will be played in June — or July or August — but they just gave us the next best thing to a guarantee.
Hope. It’s a whole lot better than nothing.
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