Of all organized sports, golf has been seen as the one best equipped to return to action while in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Its very nature lends well to the implementation of measures required to minimize risk; it’s a non-contact endeavor held outdoors, with players able to traverse the course by themselves throughout any given round. And for doubters, The Match: Champions for Charity served to allay fears; last month’s exhibition saw crossover stars Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning sticking, with relative ease, to safety guidelines through 18 holes of play.
An actual tournament is, to be sure, markedly different from an event featuring an extremely limited field. Controls are bound to be tested more frequently with greater numbers. Which was why the United States Professional Golfers Association Tour came up with protocols designed to protect all and sundry from infection as best it could. Among other things, it compelled testing at points or origin and on site, not to mention physical distancing among players and caddies while inside the ropes. The program looked good — make that very, very good — on paper, hence the confidence that accompanied the hosting of the Charles Schwab Challenge two weeks ago.
As history has shown, though, even the best-laid plans get closer to perfection only through constant challenges. And, true enough, its flaws emerged in the run-up to this week’s Travelers Championship. While the RBC Heritage came and went with only one positive test, the susceptibility of protagonists to the virus in the intervening periods between tournaments has nonetheless been brought to the fore. Tour regular Cameron Champ and caddies Ricky Elliott and Ken Comboy have joined Nick Watney in quarantine after likewise catching the bug, prompting withdrawals from Brooks Koepka, Graeme McDowell, Chase Koepka, and Webb Simpson.
In response, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has pushed for additional testing and pledged stricter enforcement of existing safety regulations. These rules were hitherto followed in the breach, what with complacency setting in following all the negative results and given the absence of live spectators. Under the circumstances, the Travelers Championship all but serves as a restart; eyes will be on how the sport responds to the turn of events and tries to do better.
Not coincidentally, the Tour will be ramping up operations en route to the Memorial, its first planned tournament with fans on hand. How it fares this week at the Travelers, and over the next two weeks at the Rocket Mortgage Classic and John Deere Classic, will certainly inform its dealings in the event hosted by living legend Jack Nicklaus. A little too early for a mass gathering? Perhaps. In any case, the onus is on Monahan and Company to get everything right. The sport is at a crossroads. The last thing it needs is to make the wrong choice on where to go, because turning back will come with consequences.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.