PGA Tour's COVID-19 protocols to face serious test in crisis-stricken California

Rex Hoggard
·5 min read

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7, 2021: “Without urgent changes in behavior, L.A. County will lose its coronavirus battle, officials say”

Yahoo! News, Jan. 11, 2021: “‘It’s all fallen apart’: [Governor] Newsom scrambles to save California — and his career”

Beyond the headlines, the plight of the most populous state sounds even worse. Last week officials in Los Angeles County warned of a “human disaster.” There were countless stories of hospitals turning ambulances away because of exhausted resources and various government websites continued to reference 0% ICU availability at most medical facilities.

With this somber backdrop, the PGA Tour is poised to play the first of four events in California when the traveling circuit heads to La Quinta, for next week’s American Express.

While the pandemic rages at alarming levels in Los Angeles and much of Southern California, local officials had approved the traditional multi-day pro-am format at the former Bob Hope, but the Tour announced last week they would eliminate the lucrative pro-am portion “due to the current local climate in Riverside County caused by COVID-19, and considering national travel associated with the event.”

No multi-day pro-am or spectators at American Express event

The event proper, however, and the 156 players, 156 caddies and all of the other members of essential Tour life will descend on the Coachella Valley for the annual stop as the state continues to wrestle with the pandemic.

Desert Sun, Jan. 11, 2021: “California virus deaths top 30K”

To be fair, this is all part of the Tour’s return to competition that started last June. One of the first benchmarks Tour officials set before the restart was to be sure the circuit never burdened local medical resources. Testing for players, caddies and assorted officials is conducted through a dedicated mobile laboratory and the protocols provide for multiple layers of testing to avoid the kind of outbreaks that have disrupted other professional leagues.

“We cannot be a drain on resources and once we are we shouldn’t be operating,” said Paul Casey, who plans to play three of the four California events including next week in La Quinta, California. “But I also support the Tour and trust in our protocols.”

Andy Levinson, the senior vice president of tournament administration for the PGA Tour and the man tasked with creating the circuit’s Return to Golf plan, said that although the Tour’s health and safety protocols have evolved since the restart, there will be no changes for the California events.

“We are comfortable that when we come to a town we are going to stay within our group. We’re going to be following the protocols and regardless of the location, we feel like we can do that relatively safely,” he said. “California, certainly the situation is difficult, and we understand that and we have worked closely with the local authorities to make sure they are comfortable with what we are doing.”

Those protocols involve testing before players and caddies are allowed on property to practice and play, social distancing, wearing masks and safer-at-home practices.

In fact, the travel restrictions for players heading to Hawaii and the year’s first two events were far more robust than those required by California for players entering to compete. Those playing the Hawaiian fortnight were required to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arriving in the state and had to register with the state’s health department when they arrived.

But then Levinson and most health officials will tell you, the biggest challenge going forward against COVID-19 is complacency.

“It’s not just a concern with our PGA Tour world, it’s a concern across the country that people are tired of having to take all these steps in their lives that are out of the norm for them,” Levinson said. “It’s up to us to continue to educate everybody and remind everybody of what is most important.”

For Pat McCabe, the tournament director of The American Express, the uncertainty created by the pandemic has been the biggest challenge, but it has led to a greater sense of community among the California tournament leaders.

“I speak with the other three tournament directors more than I have in any other year and that’s been great for all of us,” McCabe said.

The American Express is followed by the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego before the Tour heads to Pebble Beach in February, two areas that haven’t been impacted by the pandemic as thoroughly as Los Angeles Country. Currently, fans will not be allowed at any of the California events as it was announced on Tuesday that the Genesis Invitational will be played without spectators.

There are plans, however, for up to 8,000 fans a day at the Phoenix Open, sandwiched between the four California tournaments. (Editor's note: It was announced on Wednesday that the WMPO will reduce fan attendance to fewer than 5,000.)

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11, 2021: “Darkest days for L.A. doctors, nurses, EMTs: ‘The way most people leave is by dying’”

Despite an ongoing stay-at-home order and aggressive lockdown rules, health officials in Los Angeles are bracing for what they believe will be a post-New Year’s transmission peak in “a few weeks.” The Genesis Invitational, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation and is seen as the anchor of the Tour’s West Coast swing, is scheduled for Feb. 18-21 at Riviera Country Club. How that timing fits in with the ongoing crisis and a potential peak in COVID-19 cases remains to be seen, but the Tour and Levinson remain resolute.

Following seven months of competition since last June’s restart across dozens of states and international boundaries, the Tour is confident with its plan and its place in every community where it plays.

“In every state where we go, we work very closely with the local authorities - whether that’s health officials, local leadership, governor’s offices - and make sure they understand what our program entails to the point that they are comfortable with us conducting our events,” Levinson said. “Our program is designed to take every step possible to mitigate risk, the environment in one state or another doesn’t change that.”

The Tour’s protocols, which have been widely applauded, won’t be changing but given the current crisis in California, the scrutiny on those protocols is sure to intensify.