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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: Hey Golf World, Don’t Get Cocky About COVID Yet

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Collin Morikawa celebrates his second PGA Tour victory with one of Muirfield Village's famed milkshakes. (GETTY)

I’ve been as guilty of it as any, but it’s really tempting to feel that golf has been largely immune to the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I say ‘largely’ because, obviously, the industry has been negatively affected by this worldwide crisis.

Courses were completely closed for several weeks — and still subject to restrictions in most areas. The PGA Tour has been back for a month, but will remain without fans in attendance for at least the near future. Locally, the West Penn Amateur Championship has been postponed indefinitely after coronavirus resurged in Allegheny County.

But, as chronicled right here on PGN, golf has been more COVID-resistant than most sports, and more resilient than most businesses overall.

If you find yourself settling back into your usual golf comfort zone, though, events of the past week should be enough to give you pause.

First of all, the Ryder Cup’s postponement to next fall was a bummer, even if it was quite predictable. On a lesser level, the decision by the State of Ohio and Muirfield Village Golf Club to play this week’s Memorial Tournament without fans is also significant.

While I had my doubts right away when Jack’s tourney was planning to be the first post-COVID PGA event with spectators present, I also thought a 20-percent capacity limit on the property was an attainable goal to set.

Guess not. With COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths moving back in a negative direction, I see no end in sight to the fan-less status quo on the PGA Tour and — when they get back to action — the other major tours. If anything, our lack of progress as a nation has another pro-golf shutdown in range, more so than an opening of the turnstiles.

That’s not to be overly negative. I think the first month-plus of PGA golf has shown that maintaining this moving ‘bubble’ is sustainable, as long as we don’t expect perfection. Yes, there have been some positive tests, but the socially-distant nature of golf itself should allow it to endure.

I say ‘should’ for a reason, too. If all the folks in the bubble don’t do their duties to each other, then there’s no guarantee the rest of the 2020 schedule will continue uninterrupted. Also, if the situation nationwide doesn’t at least stabilize in the coming weeks and months, that could short-circuit golf’s return as well.

Which brings me back to the most vulnerable population in the industry: The golf courses we all love to patronize.

It’s warmed my heart to travel around western Pennsylvania this summer and hear stories about how business is up and how people are leaning into This Great Game to give themselves some healthy respite from the taxing news of the day.

But again, there’s no guarantee this will continue to be the case.

So, keep masking up, washing your hands and limiting unnecessary exposure. I know I’ve enjoyed diving headlong into golf — both playing it and watching it — in this strangest of years. I’m sure you agree.

Let’s all be part of the solution, not the problem.

Scope out the Kobe Bryant headcover of PGN reporter Zac Weiss. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• As you might’ve been able to tell from the featured image, Collin Morikawa completed a surprising comeback at Muirfield Village, rallying from three shots down to FedEx Cup leader Justin Thomas to pull out the inaugural (and only?) Workday Charity Open on the third playoff hole.

Not only was it an impressive display of resilience within the context of the final round — in which Morikawa snatched a mid-round lead, then fell behind Thomas just past the turn — it also marked a rebound from his painful playoff loss four weeks ago at the Colonial.

This time it was Morikawa inflicting some pain, stealing what appeared to be a sure win from Thomas. The 23-year-old second-year pro stood out with his precision iron play, but his putter also starred when it had to … like after when Thomas drained a shocking birdie bomb on the first playoff hole.

I still think the PGA Tour missed an opportunity to do something a little more interesting with the Workday — team play, Stableford scoring, etc. — but as has happened often in the five events since the PGA Tour’s COVID-19 restart, the golf itself was entertaining enough to make for a compelling watch.

• Well, it would’ve been a more compelling watch if the back nine and the playoff were available on anything other than the CBS Sports website and app.

This might make me sound old — I swear I’m 35 — but streaming isn’t the same as on TV. I watched the conclusion live, but I wonder how many people didn’t know where the tourney was concluding. I caught the leaders on the front nine on the Golf Channel, which got some bonus action due to the weather-adjusted tee times, but the broadcast wasn’t entirely clear about what was to happen after that.

I’m done complaining about TV rights contracts and the weirdness that ensues when storms get in the way. There are more important things to get worked up about. But it’s certainly a missed opportunity when one of the best finishes of the season isn’t broadcast live on television.

• I wonder if Tiger Woods were in contention, would CBS have found a way to get that on the air? Maybe we’ll find out this week, when the man himself returns to gun for his sixth win at the Memorial Tournament — and the record-breaking No. 83 on tour overall.

• Local golf competition heats up again this week, highlighted by the two-day Tri-State PGA Pittsburgh Open, contested at South Hills Country Club.

Yours truly will be competing in the tourney, hoping to meet more of the movers and shakers on the western Pa. golf scene. Oh, and playing well would be absolutely lovely, too.

Don’t forget, WPGA Open qualifying is also beginning this week, with beautiful Birdsfoot Golf Club in Sarver hosting Wednesday. Fewer spots are available this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, but there’s still an opportunity to get into the main event at Shannopin Country Club on the first week of August.

• Let me be the first to offer a warm PGN welcome to Sunset Golf, our first local advertiser on the site!

Located in South Park, Sunset Golf offers a full-service driving range and 27 holes of miniature golf. The facility will soon be featured prominently atop our practice facility directory page as our inaugural Eagle sponsor!

Remember, PGN is open for business. Contact me at matt.gajtka@gmail.com for advertising opportunities, from preferred placement on the site, to sponsored stories, to interactive partnerships and more!

• Finally, thanks for all the well-wishes on Gajtka Baby No. 2, little Henrik Anthony.

Allow me to offer my thanks to the staff at the West Penn Hospital maternity ward for making our stay as comfortable and pleasant as can be.

Now you see why I’ve been trying to squeeze in as much golf as possible in the front half of the summer! Hit ’em straight this week.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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