PGA Tour pros adjusting to playing through a pandemic

This year’s RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing will be different from every previous installment in just about every possible way, right down to the way the PGA Tour professionals interact with Harbour Town Golf Links and Hilton Head Island in general. 

The strict protocols the PGA Tour has put in place to make a return to competition possible have altered everything from how players dine during tournament week to how they interact with their caddies. 

One of the biggest differences will be the absence of the hardcore golf fans — and the plaid-clad party people masquerading as such — this week at Harbour Town. Players got a taste of it last week at Colonial Country Club, but the change might be even more noticeable at the Heritage, a tournament known for its Adult Spring Break nature. 

“It’s got that nice Southern feel to it, and it’s a nice modest party,” two-time Heritage champion Jim Furyk said. “It’s a fun spot, in my opinion. I think everyone’s relaxed. I’ll miss that atmosphere. I’ll miss kind of the fun that goes on around this golf tournament because I’ve always thought it was kind of done in the right way, and it was fun to be kind of playing a golf tournament in the middle of it.”

A view of the 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links during Tuesday’s practice round, giving PGA Tour pros a different look than usual with no grandstands.
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Savannah native Brian Harman definitely missed the crowds at last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour’s first event since The Players Championship was halted after one round on March 13. 

“It was odd because you could hear so much more on the course than you normally can,” Harman said. “Usually, there’s a kind of a fan murmur that sort of drowns out other tee shots and stuff like that. Over the course of the last seven, eight years, we’ve had four or five days where we haven’t had fans because of weather or some other circumstances. And, man, I played a little bit of golf on the mini tours and played plenty in college with no fans, so it’s not that foreign to us, but it’s definitely preferable to have them out there.”

For one, the players are realizing how much they count on the fans for feedback. 

“Not knowing how close your ball is, crowd reactions, making a putt for birdie. It’s very quiet,” Rickie Fowler said. “It’s whatever happens in your group. Try and relax and just go play golf. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.”

Rickie Fowler plays a shot during a practice round prior to the RBC Heritage on Tuesday at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

On the other hand, the quarantined nature of the PGA Tour’s “bubble” that limits players’ interactions with others could work out in favor of some of the golfers with local ties that can sometimes turn into distractions. 

“Having all the friends and family can really help, or it can hurt sometimes,” Harman said. “You put all this extra pressure on yourself to try to do well. With no fans and no family and friends, it’s more just about the golf. So I’m going to try to take this opportunity to try to focus on the golf and try to do the best I can.”

While the new normal will be noticeable over the 18 holes at Harbour Town Golf Links, it will also impact the 19th hole. Harbour Town is usually abuzz during tournament week, and some of the wilder pros might even be seen knocking a couple back at the Quarterdeck, but don’t expect many celebrity sightings around town this week.

“They have strict protocols while we’re on site, but off site it’s kind of up to us to be smart,” Webb Simpson said. “I think we’re seeing, with numbers spiking in various states, that people took this very seriously the first couple months, and I think the spike is probably because people are relaxing.”

Simpson’s family traveled to Hilton Head with him this week, but they won’t be hitting the town. 

“There’s a lot riding on just us being eligible to play,” Simpson said. “I get nervous when I get the test result on my phone. When I have a notification and I’m opening the document up, I’m nervous because I know, if I get a positive, I can’t play for a couple weeks, and that’s a big deal at this point in the season. I’m trying to be as careful as I can be, and with no positives last week, which is amazing, I don’t know how long that will keep up. Hopefully, it will keep up. Guys need to make sure they’re not doing anything dumb.”

C.T. Pan reacts after winning the 2019 RBC Heritage.
(Photo by Jeffery Minnish/LowcoSports.com)

The PGA Tour’s protocols seem to be working — and the players seem to be doing their part — because no one inside the “bubble” tested positive last week. That’s encouraging for defending Heritage champion C.T. Pan, who withdrew from the Players Championship before the PGA Tour pulled the plug and was critical of the Tour’s preparation.

Pan is pleased with the efforts the Tour has put into getting the players back on the course and keeping them safe in the process.

“The testing is impressively quick and easy. The social distancing, they’re still doing that. And the grab and go meals, that’s something I suggested them to do, and they said that’s great, that they would do that,” Pan said. “You know, I think they’re trying to follow the rules just like everyone else out there, and hopefully they will be the model for NBA and MLB and for them to proceed to their next steps. So far, I’m very impressed about how PGA Tour handled this.”

Story by Justin Jarrett

Justin Jarrett is the founder of LowcoSports. He has a passion for sports and community journalism and a questionable sense of humor.

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