Tim Herron turned 50 in February, his new lease on golf life set to commence. The PGA Tour Champions beckoned, and he was slowly getting acclimated to senior golf and its 54-hole events and golf carts when it all came crashing to a halt.
Like the rest of the sports world, golf was shut down. Senior golf, especially, given the age range and vulnerability of its participants, had to take a cautious approach as it looked to return, doing so far slower than the PGA Tour.
In similar fashion to the regular tour, the Champions circuit has so far enjoyed a successful run, with four tournaments, including a major championship, played so far.
But this week in South Dakota, the PGA Tour Champions steps out from the regular tour by welcoming spectators back, although in a limited fashion.
The Sanford International presented by Cambria, where Herron is the tournament ambassador, seems a logical event and location to make this initial foray into bringing fans on site. (Although there has been a recent rise in South Dakota coronavirus cases, the state has had under 15,000 total cases, with just over 3,000 active cases, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.)
Sanford is a health company that the PGA Tour has contracted with to administer COVID-19 tests at all of its events; Cambria makes nonporous countertops that, among other things, are easy to clean and thus help halt the spread of germs — something the company is touting during the pandemic
All of these things have aligned to present the first golf tournament with spectators.
“We have been using Sanford for our testing, and they are based right in town,” said Herron, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour. “We play golf outside; you can socially distance, it’s not like you are sitting crammed in seats. They are asking people to wear face masks when possible, and they are doing temperature checks and all the sanitization we are getting used to.
“They are being very cautious. They want it to be successful. They are going above and beyond the protocols and trying to keep it very safe.”
The Sanford event will be played at Minnehaha Country Club in Sioux Falls and has been somewhat under the radar as far as bringing spectators onto the course.
According to tour president Miller Brady, the plan is to allow approximately 5,000 to 6,000 spectators per day. None will be allowed on Wednesday and Thursday, when pro-ams will take place; the PGA Tour Champions has had pro-ams at its events, while the PGA Tour is not bringing them back for another two weeks, then will do so at its event in the Dominican Republic.
“Pro-ams are paramount to the business model,” Brady said of the 52 groups that will comprise one player and four amateurs. “We felt we could do it in a safe manner for both the professionals and amateurs. And we’re fortunate we have a title sponsor in Sanford who is a health care organization. They have a team of clinicians and infectious disease doctors advising us who feel we can put forth spectators in a safe manner. So we’re hopeful we can lead the way in showing this can be done safely.”
All of the players, caddies and pro-am participants are tested. Through four events, Brady said just one PGA Tour Champions player has tested positive, and that unnamed player has recovered and has returned to competition. Mark Calcavecchia announced on Sunday that he had tested positive at home.
When spectators are allowed starting Friday for the 54-hole tournament, players will not be allowed to sign autographs and the rope lines that border the holes and lead from greens to tees will be extended. The idea is to give players more space from spectators, who are not required by South Dakota law to wear masks but are being asked to do so in crowded areas. They will be given masks upon entry and, if requested, gloves.
“We have spectator protocols that have been put in place by the tournament and the tour that have been communicated to all spectators who are attending,” Brady said.
Among the protocols will be temperature screenings upon entering the parking lots and again before entering the course. Anyone with a temperature above 100 will not be admitted.
“We’re on 150 acres,” Brady said. “If you bring a level of spectators back to the NFL and college football, golf has to be as safe or safer than that.”
The event is something of a home game for Herron, who lives in Minnesota and is looking to get his PGA Tour Champions career on track while also doing some arm-twisting among his peers in an attempt to promote the tournament.
“We are dealing with a new normal, but I’m looking forward to getting some fans back and seeing how it goes,” Herron said. “I’ve enjoyed the Champions tour, getting back to seeing some of my old buddies. I haven’t played particularly well so far, I’m just trying to stay patient.”