With the promise of high ratings, major sports leagues have spent the last months trying to figure out what a return to normalcy might look like during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Broadcasters and sports franchises are teaming up to devise strategies to relaunch seasons while keeping players, fans, and production teams safe from infection. As of now, a few leagues have found a way forward including Germany’s Bundesliga football association, NASCAR, and a host of sports organizations across Korea. Now, as summer approaches full swing, the PGA Tour hopes to be the latest sport to reenter the world.
With plans to resume play on June 11th — with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas — the PGA Tour has spent weeks figuring out exactly what precautions must be taken in order to guarantee the safety of staff and participants. The resulting plan, according to Yahoo Sports, has been seen as bold and thorough, but not without its skeptics. Beginning with daily health questionnaires that players must complete prior to leaving for the tournament, an at-home test that will be administered with the assistance of a doctor via video call, and additional testing upon arrival at the tournament itself, the strategy that PGA has adopted seems quite airtight at first glance.
However, some critics say that the estimated number of kits PGA Tour believes it will need (400) is shockingly small compared to estimates from other leagues (Major League Baseball estimated 1200 kits minimum). While the PGA Tour does consist of fewer personnel than an MLB season, those on edge still feel like the risk of low balling supplies could have devastating consequences for broadcasters and players alike.
But there is a chance that professional golf knows more about what it’s doing than it’s been given credit for. While the PGA Tour will not start up until June, some golfers were treated to a bit of a dry run back on May 17th with the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity event.
While not associated with the PGA Tour, the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity event — hosted at the Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida — could offer a helpful template for how the Tour can maintain regulations and safety on top of the in-place testing protocol. As the club’s first professional-only event, the Seminole spared no expense keeping players and production teams safe.
In addition to receiving testing prior to reaching the course, all players were forced to carry their own bags (no caddies means less risk of breaking social-distancing), and guests (each player was allowed one) would only be allowed on the course if they were deemed essential personnel. Relying on frequent sterilization of equipment and the use of distance-measuring devices, the event seemed to go off without a hitch.
Tasked with producing the TaylorMade Driving Relief event, NBCUniversal made sure to take intense precautions to ensure the safety of their crews. While a normal NBC golf event might require a team of over 100 people, the TaylorMade event had only 28 personnel on the course: six cameras, two roving announcers, and limited technical support staff. While an additional airplane-camera was used to capture the flight of the balls, NBC touted both the restraint and the intimacy of their approach.
In the studio, broadcasters stood six feet apart at all times, though they were positioned so that it would be easy to comfortably speak with one another as they observed and reacted to footage. Additionally, NBC lead anchor Mike Tirico broadcast from his Michigan home. In lieu of the traditional on-site production truck, managed all footage at an off-site facility — ensuring that no one is isn’t absolutely necessary must be in the area. As with all major sporting events in the wake of COVID-19, there were no spectators.
Much like NASCAR, golf benefits from players naturally keeping their distance from one another, making it easier for events like the PGA Tour to resume this summer. Still, as the organization creeps closer to that June start-date, it will be essential to look to other league successes and continue refining the approach to production and play alike.
PGA’s eagerness as well as the eagerness of professional golf fans is palpable — a May 24th charity tournament featuring Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and more attracted a viewership of roughly 5.8 million, the most of any cable golf telecast and history. With this in mind, the Charles Schwab Challenge could very well be a benchmark for the sport going forward. Still, it can only benefit the association to look at the success of the TaylorMade event and others as a potential guide for their upcoming — admittedly much larger — showcase.
As other leagues have shown in the past few weeks, staying adaptable and alert around conditions and challenges is the key to a stellar return to play. With the proper protocol and regulation, the PGA Tour could be yet another story of triumph — a real hole-in-one.