5 lingering pro golf questions in the wake of the coronavirus
In the dizzying string of press conferences, announcements and cancellations in golf this week as the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency by President Donald Trump, there were many questions surrounding the game still to be answered. Not the least of which: When might it be safe enough for the pro tours to start playing tournaments again? We won't have a real grasp of when that might be for a while—golf is hardly a priority as communities come to grips with trying to stop the spread of the virus. But there are a handful of other lingering queries for the sport that are worth exploring—and that can provide a pleasant distraction as we ponder them.
When will they play the Masters?
It will be with a bit of melancholy and an emptiness in our gut when we awake on April 9 and aren't able to tune into the ceremonial drives of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player that signify the start of the Masters. This was going to be a special one, too—the return of champion Tiger Woods, if his body was willing.
Augusta National Golf Club made it official on Friday that it was postponing the Masters to a future date this year. For an organization that has the reputation for being staid and set in its ways, there may not be another team in golf that could adapt to the crisis better. The club owns the course, has the financial wherewithal to be flexible and seemingly can get anything done. (They do, after all, buy up entire neighborhoods and build tunnels under city streets.)
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Public conversation about possible Masters dates has focused on two time periods that avoid the brutal heat of the Georgia summer. The first is in May, the last month the course is available before it closes for the summer. That might be enough time for coronavirus concerns to have subsided, and the Augusta National the course would present itself close to what it would be in April. Having it then also would mean the Masters results could be part of the FedEx Cup championship race, Olympic and Ryder Cup qualifying.
The problem is that the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco is scheduled for May 14-17, and there are other marquee PGA Tour events at popular venues, including Colonial and Quail Hollow.
Choosing May also seems like taking an unnecessary risk. We’re in the early stages of the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., and no one can guarantee that PGA Tour play will have resumed by then.
More likely for the Masters is a date in September or October. The FedEx Cup Playoffs are scheduled to conclude at the Tour Championship on Aug. 30, and there are a couple of gap weeks before the wraparound schedule begins in mid-September. ANGC would have to be mindful of the Ryder Cup, which is set for Sept. 25-27 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. The European Tour also hosts some of its bigger events, including the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, in September.
October, the month that the club traditionally re-opens for member play, brings more fall PGA Tour events, and one of them could be played concurrently with the Masters if the need arises. Let’s not forget that CBS will have some say in this, considering its sizable commitment to college and pro football in the fall.
A Masters in October, without the dogwoods and azaleas in bloom? It would be a little strange, to be sure, but still better than one played with no spectators, or not at all.
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What’s the update on the other majors?
Before all of the cancellations last week, there were reports that the PGA of America was exploring potential backup sites for the PGA Championship should it have to move from San Francisco. The venue most mentioned was TPC Sawgrass, because the PGA Tour could accommodate staging a major on short notice.
But the nervousness seemed a bit overwrought, and the PGA of America affirmed it was committed to Harding Park. In reality, there doesn’t seem to be a plausible reason to leave San Francisco. Yes, it is as major city with a larger population and potentially more coronavirus cases, but June’s U.S. Open is scheduled for Winged Foot in the greater New York metropolitan area, and there hasn’t been much discussion about moving it to another venue.
The USGA, which has championships that run April through September, said on Friday it has not made any decisions about its schedule. It has the luxury of breathing room, as does the R&A, which is scheduled to hold the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, in mid-July. The concern for the Open should probably be if any further travel restrictions are made, and if players will be comfortable making the trip overseas by then.
Given all this, all eyes will be on the PGA of America in the next few weeks as to whether the association will have to follow the lead of Augusta National and push back the PGA at Harding Park until later in the year.
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What happens to the world rankings for men and women?
It might seem trivial to consider at this point, but the rankings do have an effect on players’ tournament access and livelihood. Though there has been no statement from those who oversee the Official World Golf Rankings or the Women's Rolex Rankings, one possible option might be to freeze in both until play resumes.
Not having more opportunities to compete and thus influence the rankings could put some notable players in a tough spot. Phil Mickelson, for example, currently ranks No. 63 in the OWGR, and thus is outside the top 60 status that would qualify him for the U.S. Open. Depending on schedule choices when play resumes, Mickelson might have only a few chances to change his fortune; otherwise, he’s looking at Sectional Qualifying, because he’s said he won’t take a special exemption.
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Tiger Woods, on the other hand, could be saved from taking a big rankings tumble from his current No. 11 spot if the rankings were frozen. His stunning 2019 Masters victory was due to be reduced from his points bank come mid-April.
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Can the players expect further economic support from the tour?
Simple answer for now: no.
In an age of incredibly high sports salaries, it’s sometimes forgotten that golfers are independent contractors. There are the elite who earn more with a smile on a TV ad than they do with their swing, but the vast majority make their living by grinding week in and week out on the tour.
Even in these circumstances, there is no plan to change that model, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said on Friday.
As many Americans are experiencing in this crisis, losing a chance to earn a paycheck is painful. Take the example of Martin Trainer. He has played 14 times on the tour this season. That’s 14 weeks of travel, hotels, food, caddie pay, etc. His earnings thus far: $89,482. Or $6,391 a week, before his expenses.
Losing tournaments is more dire for competitors on the Korn Ferry Tour. Those players had three events taken away in Friday’s announcement of cancelations, and they last played a competitive round on March 1. Mito Pereira tops the money list with $181,883 in four events, but at No. 50, Greg Yates has earned what has to be a disheartening $23,166 in six starts. There are many players who have entered every event this season and have less than $10,000 to show for it.
The LPGA has had the toughest draw of all. They haven’t competed since the Women’s Australian Open in mid-February, and with an announcement on Friday they lost the three events on the domestic calendar, including the first major of the year, the ANA Inspiration. On the upside, the tournaments were postponed and not canceled, but there will be logistical issues to work out. For the Kia Classic, which was to be held in late March in Carlsbad, Calif., the tournament course at Aviara Golf Club is scheduled to be shut down for six months for renovation, so a new venue may have to be secured.
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Where is Sungjae Im going to live and play?
We chuckle (and ask this one mostly tongue in cheek) because when you know the talented 21-year-old’s circumstances, you realize what a strange time this is going to be for him.
The South Korean who grabbed his first PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic two weeks ago mentioned in a recent interview with Golf Digest’s Daniel Rapaport that he doesn’t have a home base in the United States. Instead, he lives in hotels with is parents as he travels to each tour stop. So where the heck is he going to settle for now? Warm climes seem likely and he was already in Florida. He’s going to have to find a place to practice, of course, but competing—that’s the real challenge. The guy is a golf-playing machine, having played eight of nine weeks on tour since the first of January. He’s going to have to find an outlet. Any men’s clubs need a ringer?