First on the Tee
First On The Tee: Reporting on Life Inside the Pro Golf Bubble
TOLEDO, Ohio — Although there certainly is an idea in the general public of what life is like inside a COVID-19 bubble, it certainly is a completely different thing getting to experience it.
Despite the lack of spectators on site, the first-hole volunteer still had a little extra pep in his voice with the tee announcements this week at the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana. The few individuals who comprised the gallery at Highland Meadows Golf Club dutifully applauded.
Upon arrival to the nearby media parking lot, I was given and passed a daily temperature check which allowed me onto the grounds.
After checking in and receiving my credential, it was time to find a seat. Each row contains two seats separated by a shield in an effort to enforce social distancing. Additionally, masks are required in the media center which is attached to the clubhouse.
In pre-tournament e-mails approximately 40 different media workers were listed, although some were affiliated with the LPGA TOUR and some are photographers.
One of the worst-kept secrets is how much media members in general love their food, but understandably, there was no grandiose display, but rather grab-and-go wraps and chocolate chip cookies on the first day of competition. The second day featured assorted sandwiches, chips, cookies and various fruits.
Upon walking out to the course it was almost surreal not having to maneuver through fans. It was quiet enough that you could hear a player’s water-logged steps and she strode along the fairways, a significant different to how Highland Meadows’ normally full capacity, with fans tightly seated on the ninth and 18th greens.
It was a bizarre feeling being the lone individual following Danielle Kang’s group as she is now ranked second in the LPGA Rolex Rankings, but it is the new normal and something that the players have had to adjust to.
As far as end-of-round greetings go, most air-fived, however there were some knuckles and elbows exchanged as well.
Of course the leaderboards are not present which leaves players either having to check their phones if they are curious where they stand or just flat out ignoring the standing and just playing golf.
“I was definitely a scoreboard watcher before this,” Kang said. “It’s a bit different. I don’t prefer either, but I’m more used to seeing the scoreboards periodically throughout the round. Last week I pulled out my phone for the last stretch because I needed to know where I stood for the last three holes.
“But today, although there is a scoreboard or not it doesn’t matter. To me it doesn’t personally. If someone shot 7-, 8-under, there is nothing I can do about it except I still got to go play golf.”
Another commonplace on the golf course are walkways where fans have the option of crossing over to get to a different hole or perhaps position themselves better for the next hole, but even several of those on the course did not have a volunteer staffing it. Rather, there was a sign that explained it was a walkway and not to cross it if a player was hitting.
Volunteers were present at check in offering us to take small bottles of hand sanitizer and there were some by many tee boxes as well.
On average, each hole had a volunteer at a tee box, a couple additional volunteers around the fairways and roughs to track errant tee shots and a final individual by the green. Of course, there are still several golf carts buzzing around the course.
There were some players who wore masks, though not many and on a personal note I chose to keep mine on as well.
In addition, normally the pro shop would be chalk full of tournament gear, but upon talking to the employee staffed inside Friday afternoon they did not order any as the announcement of no fans was made in time.
Even in the second week of the LPGA’s restart, when players came through the flash interview area, each was asked about not having fans present.
“I think it was just odd seeing (No.) 18 without the grandstands,” Nelly Korda said. “That’s what threw me off. Usually let’s say you’ve taken a line every single year at some part of the grandstand and now it’s not there, so visually it’s a little different.”
The flash area has the players masked until they get to a table beside the area they stand and then they can discard their mask.
With no immediate end in site with the COVID-19 pandemic, these adjustments among others to media coverage are becoming the new normal.
It is interesting having these wrinkles thrown in, but having an ability to cover any event is a blessing at this point in time. The changes, though certainly noticeable, do not change much about the basic mechanics of the event.
Access is still very much there and encouraged, though the days of inside-the-ropes access are gone, at least for now. Though others sports have much stricter limitations, with golf there still is the ability to do a quick ‘flash’ interview or something low-key by scoring areas, though larger press conferences are presently done on Zoom.
Golf certainly provides the ability to socially distance and even if all parties acknowledge these changes, especially with no fans, us in the media are still able to do our jobs and you cannot ask for more than that.
Upon departing Toledo, I encountered an Uber driver who expressed disappointment over not being able to attend. He had been to every Marathon Classic for the past two-plus decades and was saddened to miss his first one.
“My work would give me vacation time every week and every year my boss would know to give me off Marathon Classic week,” he said. “For that not to be the case this year really hurts.”
DOWN THE FAIRWAY
• Hey, it’s Matt Gajtka handling the rest of this week-opening piece, as usual. First of all, thanks to Zac for taking the time and effort to report on-site from suburban Toledo.
If you missed his other coverage over the weekend, just click here for our News category. I was particularly fond of his story on young star Maria Fassi, who dialed up women’s golf legend Lorena Ochoa to get her back on her feet following a rough week at Inverness Club.
• My apologies for the delay in the WPGA Open coverage, won by WVU standout and Greensburg native Mark Goetz at Shannopin Country Club. I have a call out to Goetz and I plan to flesh out that coverage this week.
In short, I’ve started a new job and last week’s training sessions consumed more of my time that I anticipated. Gotta pay the bills before I can have fun!
• The Pennsylvania State Open isn’t run by the WPGA, but it comes to Oakmont Country Club this week, too. The 104th edition of the tournament begins today (Monday) and runs through Wednesday.
Follow the live scoring here at PAGolf.com!
• Also on a local note, I’ll have more this week on the Tri-State PGA Isaly’s Junior Tour. I covered the season-ending Player of the Year Championship in person last week, in case you missed it. We had some drama at the Field Club in Fox Chapel.
• A warm PGN welcome our second directory sponsor — Butler’s Golf Course and the Loft!
You might recall that this diverse facility in Elizabeth was our first Course Review a couple of months ago, so we’re proud to bring them aboard in an official capacity. Thanks to general manager Joe Goellner for his trust in our fledgling operation!
• OK, I’ve waited long enough … how about that finish at the PGA Championship? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a seven-way tie for the lead on the back nine of a major, but TPC Harding Park and the usual elite PGA field came through massively.
It was pretty clearly a no-lose situation at that point for entertainment value, but then to watch the promising Cal product Collin Morikawa chip in on 14 to take the solo lead, then clinch the title with a sizzling eagle on the par-4 16th put it over the top.
This didn’t look like a guy who was playing in his second career major championship.
This eagle from Morikawa is a thing of beauty.😍
He leads the #PGAChamp by 2. pic.twitter.com/N1QuOLGmRW
— PGA Championship (@PGAChampionship) August 10, 2020
We waited a while for the first major of 2020, but that drive-putt combo alone made us golf fans forget for a few blissful moments. Bring on the FedEx Cup playoffs in a couple of weeks, and soon the first fall U.S. Open.
• Although CBS carried the end of both weekend rounds and partially produced the entire presentation, I found it very refreshing to hear from some different voices on pro golf during the ESPN portion of the telecasts.
After what’s seemed like a million straight weeks of CBS’s staid, traditional approach, the irreverence of Scott Van Pelt, Matt Barrie, David Duval and Sean McDonough, among others, was hugely welcomed. Not only that, though, but the storytelling of Gene Wojciechowski and the general intimacy of the ESPN coverage made it feel like watching a different sport.
I’ve often said this about NHL hockey, which is dominated by the NBC family of networks, but I’ll repeat it here: Sports and leagues are better served by multiple networks and voices covering them. Not only do you reach a bigger raw audience, but the different angles taken in presenting your product will almost assuredly attract a wider range of demographic profiles.
• Thanks again for visiting PGN! Hit ’em long and go low. (That’ll be my goal at the Moon Open this weekend. 👀)