Spectators haven’t been allowed on site during PGA Tour events since the first round of the Players Championship over six months ago. After a 13-week break due to the coronavirus pandemic, there have been 16 tournaments without cheers, jeers or patron antics.
That’ll change slightly this week in the Dominican Republic.
The Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, previously scheduled for March but rescheduled due to the pandemic, will allow a select number of patrons back on tournament grounds — socially distanced, of course — when the event tees off Thursday.
The final few holes at Corales Golf Club will have corporate VIP areas set up, allowing sponsors and a handful of other visitors to watch the live sporting event in person following necessary COVID screening precautions.
MORE: Tee times, TV | Odds | Fantasy | Prop bets
“Listen, we’ve been very, very fortunate in the game of golf to be able to be one of the first sports to return back certainly on the television and being out there competing. We’ve been very fortunate, but there’s no doubt that we miss the interaction of fans,” reigning champion Graeme McDowell said. “That’s going to be a nice way to get some noise back out here and get those sounds that we expect from tournament golf back a little bit.”
The 16 Tour events played without fans allowed on site have been odd. For example, the winning putt in the playoff between Daniel Berger and Collin Morikawa at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first event back on the Tour’s revised schedule, drew just a smattering of applause when Berger holed out for the win. Nor was there the chilling cheer of thousands when 23-year-old Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau later captured their first majors.
But these events held in a somewhat dystopian sports world haven’t been completely devoid of fan noise. In last week’s U.S. Open especially, fans from surrounding neighborhoods and areas have found gaps or low fencing to howl at Matthew Wolff or cheer on Rory McIlroy, reminding normalcy-starved viewers of what used to be.
Hopefully, golf fans hear some of that again this weekend on the back nine, even if the field isn’t packed with top-ranked players.
McDowell, who has been the Corales Championship king for 19 months, is one of the players excited to have fans back on tournament grounds in some capacity.
“Yeah, I think it’s exciting. It’s exciting to have a slight bit of normality coming back,” McDowell said. “Obviously, there’s going to be a limited number of fans down here, it’s going to be done the right way. The people here at Grupo Puntacana are certainly working hard to make sure they execute a really safe game plan in regards to just keeping people safe.”
McDowell, who missed the cut in the U.S. Open, won his last event in the Dominican Republic in 2019 by one shot after carding consecutive 64s in the second and third rounds. The 41-year-old competed in 16 events in the 2019-20 season, finishing with one top 10 and seven missed cuts.
The Corales Championship follows the Sanford International on the Champions Tour in welcoming a smaller number of fans back to live golf. Played Sept. 11-13 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Sanford International became the first professional golf tournament to welcome fans in the wake of the global pandemic.
Fans at that event were given free masks and gloves, if requested. The course at Minnehaha Country Club was roped so players had more space from fans than before COVID and autographs were prohibited. Hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations were also set up across the grounds.
This week, the United States surpassed 200,000 deaths related to COVID-19 with the daily number of new cases increasing each day for the past two weeks.
While the cases and death toll continue to rise, PGA Tour — and professional golf in general — has boasted one of the lowest infection rates among professional sports since returning from the COVID break. So far, 10 Tour players and two caddies have tested positive.
Charley Hoffman said Wednesday he applauded the Tour and players for adhering to safety guidelines so the 2019-20 season could resume and the new season could begin.
“If you would have told us that we would have ended up with no breaks, no downtime with the pandemic going on, I think we all would have been, ‘Nah, I’m not sure if you’re correct there,'” Hoffman said. “But to do that and now start the season with an international event, I’ve got to give credit to the players. We’ve set out a game plan for the players to follow. We somewhat have a bubble once we get on site, but the reality is we travel week in and week out. We do step outside the bubble, we’ve got to go to hotels, we’ve got to get food, so it’s something that is far from contained, but our players have followed those regulations that we’ve set forth and it’s shown that we’ve stayed healthy.
“We’ve had no real contact tracing-wise. If someone grabs it or gets coronavirus, they haven’t really passed it on to anybody, which is the most important thing. We find it early and we keep it contained to that one person and we go on. You know, I give all the credit to the executive committee, the commissioner and most importantly the players for following the guidelines.”
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said earlier this month in his annual “state of the Tour” press conference that pro-ams would soon be welcomed back on the schedule. This week, the Wednesday pro-am returned.
McDowell called those events an essential part of Tour life.
“Listen, love it or hate it, there are certainly some pro-ams out there I love, meet some great people, and there are probably some pro-ams out there I could give it a miss from time to time, but it is an integral part of what we do with the PGA Tour,” McDowell said Tuesday. “I take them very seriously. It’s an integral part of my preparation and being out there and playing the golf course.
“Great to have it back and I’m looking forward to, like I said, I’ve missed the old environment a little bit and perhaps this will give me a little bit of a taste of the old stuff again and maybe straighten me back out and maybe get me back on some leaderboards again.”
The Tour has not stated when fans will return back to other events in a limited and socially distanced capacity, but Monahan said earlier this month it’s vital to do it safely whenever that is.
“When we feel like it’s safe to return fans out here, that’s when fans will return,” Monahan said. “We owe that to them, to make sure that we feel like, and we’re supported locally in every market we play in, that that is supported by the local government authorities.”
For fans who love this tropical event, there’s good news — this is one of three tournaments that appear twice on the 2020-21 Tour schedule. It will be played again March 25-28, 2021.