In less than a month, the PGA Tour will return. Not so much with a bang, but hardly with a whimper, either. These will be tentative steps, as the morning dew is dutifully swept away by the foot soldiers of the circuit, and yet they will be steps taken with finality. There will be no phantom first-round here: once the first ball is struck, the first par registered, golf at the very highest level will have made its move.
This will all happen at the Charles Schwab Challenge, a hitherto humdrum event which passed only in the consciousness of the purist. In 2020, Kevin Na would likely have defended his title as one of the B-list stars, behind an A-list shorter and less bonafide than organisers would like. In 2020*, Colonial Country Club and its blue blood will be pumped full of celebrity, with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson among those to have committed to play.
Make no mistake, golf has company here, this hidebound sport forced if not to embrace then at least to acknowledge the spotlight when, for once, it would rather press on unnoticed. And while there is much it cannot control, the PGA Tour must do all that it can to lock its grip, to ensure steps do not become missteps. It needs its players to move as one; to be an organism of sobriety, professionalism, and diligence. There can be no allocations made for rogue agents, no excuses offered for anyone — anyone — tiptoeing the wrong side of the line.
It has made a good start. This week, guidelines were released to players which underline both the enormity of the task from an operational perspective, and its leadership's desire to get this right. A tour which has for so long bended the knee now attempts to stand tall as it shifts its weight onto the front foot and embraces the challenge of leadership. There will be no agents, no families, no entourages; coaches must keep their distance; caddies must follow strict on-course protocols and avoid touching clubs, an act only one step removed from breathing for the circuit's veteran rats.
Tests will not number in the millions as had been rumoured, but 400 per week is nevertheless a significant total. That there will be in excess of 1000 people on-site confirms that not everyone will get one. Guidelines state that a positive test for any player means they will be withdrawn from the tournament regardless of their status or position; Pat Perez, speaking with the New York Post, isn't convinced everyone will be treated the same. And yet they must be. There is no other choice.
It has made a good start, but not a flawless one, and questions still remain as to the administration of the sport. Tommy Fleetwood told the Daily Mail earlier in the week that he has no intention of honouring his previous commitment to play at Colonial, because 28 days in quarantine — 14 on either side of the Atlantic — means too much time away from his family. Indeed if he were to play a reasonably full schedule from June until the season's end, the reality is that Fleetwood, a young father, would not be able to return home for months.
He is not alone in being asked to make a potentially career-changing decision without all the information he needs to make it. Will the PGA Tour require from him a minimum number of appearances to keep his card for next season? Will he slide down the Official World Golf Rankings for lack of playing opportunities closer to home, or will they remain paused until all major tours resume? And, perhaps most pressingly for Fleetwood and several of his European colleagues, when and how will Ryder Cup qualification return, and in what form?
These are questions for but not limited to the PGA Tour, and it's reasonable to expect answers in the days ahead, given that the estimated 25 international players not currently in the United States have under two weeks to get there. And there are dozens more, coloured as with everything else by this horrid virus. They range from the pernickety (what's qualifying for the US Open going to look like?) to the potentially grave (what happens if there's an outbreak at a tournament?), and there are rarely going to be easy answers.
If commissioner Jay Monahan can do his part in finding them, if he can control what he can control, if he somehow guides the PGA Tour through to the end, he will deserve enormous credit. He might even deserve the place in golf's Hall of Fame which is reserved for him regardless. The scale of this challenge is enormous, and it will involve a tilting of the scales to temporarily diminish the power of the player.
It is hoped that lessons have been learned from what golf has taken place over the last few weeks. At the Scottsdale Open, an Outlaw Tour event with a six-figure purse, there was so much to admire: for the most part, players did what they were told; there was some genuinely ground-breaking coverage online; a young player who has struggled to transition to professional golf held firm to beat off a PGA Tour star or two and win the biggest cheque of his fledgling career. Most of all, life happened.
But there were also red flags. Despite local health authority guidelines urging the sort of social-distancing we all ought to be used to by now, several players stood, face-to-face, no more than a foot or two between them, to chat. Others shared fist-bumps. In the final group, which featured world number 70 Joel Dahmen and was streamed to tens of thousands of viewers, his playing partner moved in to get a read on a putt before he had made way, so that there were only inches between them.
This sort of behaviour is inexcusable, and should be treated accordingly, not through secretive and punitive fines, but immediate disqualifications and bans. If a player is not willing to sacrifice the thinnest sliver of freedoms, then he should simply not be allowed to play. The PGA Tour would much rather achieve total buy-in from across its 200-plus members, but it must put its reputation, and that of the sport, right behind health and safety, well ahead of the relationships it has previously prioritised.
Golf is a sport whose resumption at both an amateur and professional level, to some, serves only as further evidence that it is elite and cares not for the rules which govern everything else. It's that which places it in peril just as it seeks to revive. As for the PGA Tour, there is a dotted line from its headquarters to the White House, whose incumbent flouts his own government's guidelines and refuses to wear a face mask lest it smudge his make-up. Right or wrong, column inches will link them as symbiotic.
These are shackles from which it must now break free, showing instead that this sport is everything it would claim to be. The oldest rule in golf — that you shake the hand of your opponent — is turned on its head. How willing and able its highest-performing athletes are to accept what is now real will shape its future, short- and long-term. Get this wrong, and we could lose a generation as easily as we could lose a 2020* Masters Tournament. There is nothing to be gained in the hubris of the fist-bump. Now is a time for humility.
In less than a month, the PGA Tour will return. For many of us, the courses on which those first steps are taken help to intensify feelings of excitement, just as Colonial Country Club's 'Horrible Horseshoe' will increase levels of anxiety among the 140-strong field at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Those holes — three, four, and five — might not define tournaments, even if they sometimes determine their outcome, but there they lurk, harvesting catastrophe out of carelessness.
For all the promise, for all the measures, there is something foreboding in the uncertainty as to what lies ahead. Whether this is merely the first page of golf's next chapter, or the first minute of its darkest hour, we cannot yet know. We can only hope.
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.