PGA Tour's West Coast Swing events are seeing a boom in interest despite Omicron surge
In a restaurant at an upscale San Diego outdoor mall bustling with post-Christmas shoppers at lunch time, Marty Gorsich considers his good fortune between bites of his salmon and salad. Gorsich is the executive director of the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, and just a few miles up the road in La Jolla, he’s got a full city of hospitality tents and grandstands rising up from the turf at Torrey Pines for the tournament that will be staged late next month.
A year ago, Torrey barely looked as if it were hosting anything other than a men’s club championship as no fans were allowed to attend the Farmers and other events on the West Coast Swing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, starting next week in Maui, all of those same tournaments in Hawaii, California and Arizona that begin the tour’s 2022 calendar year are set to look like the pandemic is fully behind us—even as the world experiences record spikes in COVID-19 because of the Omicron variant. All seven of the West Coast Swing events expect crowds at pre-pandemic levels, and corporate and high-end hospitality sales have been brisk. Currently, only two tournaments will require proof of vaccination from spectators—the Sony Open in Honolulu and The American Express in La Quinta, Calif.—and the PGA Tour has no plans to change its current player protocols.
“It’s an absolute blessing to be in golf,” Gorsich says.
He offers that with the knowledge that the game, both at the recreational and competitive levels, has managed to stride forward—even experience a participation boom—because it is played outdoors among individuals who can socially distance if they choose. Yes, professional golf has seen some athletes test positive for the virus and go into quarantine, but the PGA Tour has staged nearly 19 months of weekly tournaments since the initial shutdown in the spring of 2020. Team sports, meantime, continue to suffer frequent schedule interruptions amid waves of positive COVID tests among players.
“Our guys aren’t sitting in a film room together. They’re not all in a locker room at the same time,” Gorisch says.
Only 24 hours before Gorisch’s lunch, he got a sobering reminder of the differences. The Holiday Bowl in San Diego was canceled just a few hours prior to kickoff because UCLA had too many positive COVID tests to field a team against North Carolina State. Fans from around the country who traveled for the game were shut out, and millions of dollars spent to configure the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park for football were wasted.
Gorisch felt horrible for his peers who organized the bowl, but that is the nerve-rattling nature of the sports and entertainment business right now. Twenty-two months into the pandemic, any semblance of normalcy is gauged from day to day.
But this winter does feel different, Gorsich says. Omicron, while highly contagious, doesn’t appear to carry the same dire health consequences as the previous coronavirus strains—at least among those who are vaccinated. Numerous scientific studies also have shown that the chance of contracting the virus outdoors is rare, and that seemingly has not changed with Omicron.
“There’s nothing about this variant that would suggest it would spread more easily outdoors or with more difficulty indoors,” John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California-Berkeley told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sightings of celebrities such as Bill Murray are expected to be back in 2022 for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The PGA Tour began allowing larger crowds last spring and the size of galleries grew with each passing event. While the four major championships limited their crowds to the low 10,000s, all are expecting to offer full allotments of tickets this year.
Steve John, the CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation and tournament director for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, said in a telephone interview that ticket and corporate pre-sales for the tournament, to be played Feb. 3-6, are “higher than they’ve ever been.” The event will have its full contingency of celebrity amateurs playing alongside the pros—something that didn’t happened in 2021, making the event terribly un-Pebble-like.
“There’s a great demand for people to return to normalcy,” John said. “That’s a statement in our whole world right now. Everybody wants to get back to normal.
“We’re keenly aware of what’s going on in our area,” John added. “We don’t want to be tone deaf to anything that would be an issue for us. We’re in communication with a lot of the key constituents. But there is no reason to believe at this point in time that it would be harmful for anybody coming to our tournament.”
In San Diego, Gorsich said corporate and high-end sales have been “very strong,” and a new, mid-priced hospitality venue, called the Canyon Club, has sold out for Friday and Saturday at $360 per person. (The Farmers, set for Jan. 26-29, faced a new challenge this year in going to a Wednesday through Saturday schedule so as not to conflict with the NFL’s conference championship games that Sunday.)
Other tournaments are going full out with large-crowd attractions. The American Express (Jan. 26-29) has Brad Paisley and Maroon 5 playing post-round concerts, while the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Feb. 10-13 at TPC Scottsdale, is back to having its full stadium effect of about 20,000 people at the par-3 16th hole. And as the Thunderbirds organizers push the golf entertainment envelope, for the first time a stage will be erected in the middle of the hole for a live concert with Old Dominion and Thomas Rhett on the Saturday before the tournament week.
The PGA Tour, as an organization, is watching and encouraging the plans with cautious optimism. “The health and safety of everyone involved with PGA Tour tournaments, as well as the communities in which we play, is paramount,” a tour spokesman said.
Currently, there are no plans to change virus protocols for the players or other tour personnel, said the spokesman, who reported that approximately 83 percent of tour-related personnel are vaccinated. Players won’t be tested before or during tournaments, though on-site testing is available for personnel who request one.
In a tour memo, obtained by Golf Digest, that was sent to the membership on Dec. 22, the tour emphasized that “vaccination, boosters, masking, and social distancing are all critically important.”
The tour has made at least one change in its plans because of the Omicron surge. It hoped to expand its player hospitality services to more people, but it has informed players that only they and a spouse or “one significant other” will be allowed in dining, where masks will still be required when not eating or drinking.
“While we had hoped to expand access to restricted areas in the new year, it would not be prudent to do so at this time,” the tour said in the memo. “We will continue to closely monitor the conditions in the communities where we play and adjust protocols as soon as it is responsible.”