Golf + covid-19
August 03, 2020

PGA Championship 2020: If preparing to play a major was tricky for club pros in a normal year, try getting ready amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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Darren Carroll/PGA of America

Justin Bertsch is heading for TPC Harding Park after playing in last year's PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

As far as preparation for next week’s PGA Championship goes, Justin Bertsch’s is tough to beat. You might even call it drool-worthy. The 38-year-old club professional from Florida pegged it at Cypress Point Club and Spyglass Hill on Friday, Pebble Beach on Saturday (with a night at The Lodge in between) and the Bay Area’s California Golf Club on Sunday.

“My putting wasn’t great fresh off the plane,” Bertsch said, having taken an early flight to be able to make his first visit to Cypress, the exclusive Alister MacKenzie gem that he had the good fortune to play thanks to a member. “But it was surreal. Afterward, we were sitting in the car and it was like I didn’t realize what had just happened.”

Given that lineup, TPC Harding Park in San Francisco might seem something of a letdown—or a nightmare given the reportedly brutal rough. Not that Bertsch will look at it that way, of course. It is, after all, a major championship, something that doesn’t come around very often for someone whose days are spent teaching golf more than playing it as the head professional at the Club at Pelican Bay in Naples.

That’s even more true this year.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, the PGA Professional Championship that was scheduled for March in Austin, Texas, was moved to mid-July and then canceled in late June. That meant the top 20 on the 2019 PGA of America Player of the Year points list were eligible for spots in the field at this year’s PGA Championship, which itself was re-scheduled from May because of coronavirus.

That was the good news for the Ohio native, who earned a spot in his second straight PGA by finishing fifth in last year’s standings. The bad news? Coronavirus impacted him and many of his fellow club pros more than most in the field who will tee it up at TPC Harding Park.

While the PGA Tour season resumed in mid-June, providing for plenty of competition leading into the year’s first major, Bertsch’s options were more limited. His dream weekend on the Monterey Peninsula aside, he was left dealing with the fallout from the pandemic.

“The big difference is that in a typical year, starting around early May, we have sectional events, but those were canceled,” said Bertsch, who did manage to qualify for the Puerto Rico Open and Honda Classic early in the year, missing the cut in both. “The membership at my club also stayed behind in Florida a lot longer. Our season went through mid-June instead of ending at the beginning of May.”

That meant an extra two months of all the duties that go with being a teaching pro—lessons, club events, etc.—seriously eating into his own practice and playing time. And with schools being shut down and his wife, Sally, suddenly working from home, time to play golf and practice became even less possible for the father of two young girls.

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Christian Petersen/PGA of Americ

Justin Bertsch (left) shakes hands with Danny Lee after the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

There’s an old saying in the golf industry: If you want to play a lot of golf, don’t get into the golf industry. Never was that truer than this year.

Not all the club professionals competing at Harding Park were affected quite so adversely. There were other obstacles, however.

Ben Cook, a 26-year-old PGA professional at John’s Island Club in Vero Beach, Fla., didn’t even know that he’d qualified for this year’s PGA at first. He says he doesn’t typically keep track of the points list. But he finished ninth.

Like Bertsch, Cook also teed it up (and likewise missed the cut) in last year’s PGA at Bethpage Black, where he had the good fortune to crash for the week, rent-free, at a John’s Island member’s house 20 minutes from the course. (Long Island accommodations can be pricey and the local traffic brutal.) He brought a large contingent that included his fiancée, parents, caddie and a couple of college pals.

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Stuart Franklin

Florida club pro Ben Cook plays his shot from the 11th tee during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

Cook won’t be as fortunate this year. Most of the John’s Island members are from the Northeast, and fans aren’t allowed anyway at this year’s PGA because of the ongoing pandemic. Bertsch is equally bummed about that reality. He traveled to California with just his caddie in tow after last year also having big group of friends and family tag along.

Then there’s Danny Ballin, the 33-year-old head pro from Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island, not far from what was once the epicenter for coronavirus. With cases of the virus down, rounds are up. Balin said his club is doing five times the amount of business it did a year ago at this time.

“I’ve had zero preparation,” said Balin, who will be making his seventh appearance in the PGA since 2010. “It’s all hands on deck, all day, every day.”

Indeed. Saturday afternoon he was still busy overseeing the club championship. Sunday, he was scheduled to fly to San Francisco. He’s played a few rounds with members over the summer, but last week was his first chance to hit balls uninterrupted on the driving range.

Still, it wasn’t all bad news for Balin. In some ways, the pandemic might have actually helped his cause.

Balin, who also earned a spot in the field for this year’s re-scheduled U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September after being granted an exemption from the USGA for finishing in the top three of the PGA professional’s points standings, likely would not have been able to play in the PGA Professional Championship had it taken place in July. That’s because New York state regulations require anyone traveling from Texas to quarantine for two weeks upon their return.

In short, being away from work for three weeks in July during his club’s busiest month wasn’t going to fly.

“That probably wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “I don’t know what would have happened.”