A Stripped-Down PGA Tour: No Fans, Plenty of Questions
The last of it left the day before. Everything save for the tops of the tents—grandstands, hospitality structures, merchandise pavilions—had been built for the RBC Heritage Classic when its tournament staff was informed in March that the event had been canceled, so director Steve Wilmot and his team went about tearing their village down. As the equipment was shipped from the Heritage’s Hilton Head home, however, the staff got word from the PGA Tour’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach: The tournament may be back on.
“Our answer was ‘yes’ when the Tour asked us if he could host again,” says Wilmot, whose RBC Heritage is now scheduled to begin June 18, nine weeks after its original date on the PGA Tour calendar. “But we certainly had a lot of questions.”
While the rest of the sports world hibernates during the coronavirus pandemic, the PGA Tour is forging ahead with a season restart on June 11 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. The reimagined 2020 PGA Tour calendar unveiled last week is an ambitious endeavor: 14 tournaments in 13 weeks spread across the country, a venture many in and out of the game question whether is truly feasible. With any number of moving parts to a professional golf tournament ordinarily requiring the coordinated efforts of 1,500 to 2,500 people, can it be pulled off?
The decision to move forward is bred by confidence from Tour and tournament officials that their collective footprint can be minimized in an environment filled with new restrictions. Restrictions regarding safety, yes, that the sport can adhere to physical distancing from its competitors and those conducting the events, and by barring fans from at least the first four events. But also economical and logistical concerns, areas whose limits are shifting and evolving. So how does the Tour go about scaling down its operations to meet these unassailable, and uncompromising, new parameters?
A spectator-free golf course is the obvious response, but the changes under discussion go deeper than cosmetics. The entire Tour experience is being recalibrated during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes who is working the events—from Tour staff, tournament officials and volunteers—and what their roles may be. It involves a review of the elements of a modern-day tour event, ranging from tracking scoring data to hosting pro-ams, to determine what are considered vital to running an event and what are deemed comforts. Moreover, which non-players/workers will be allowed, if any, on the property? And what will and won’t viewers see on the television and digital broadcasts, including who will be behind the cameras and mics? As each decision on who or what stays and goes is made—when contacted by Golf Digest, PGA Tour officials acknowledged they’re still in the planning process regarding many aspects of tournament operations—millions of dollars in revenue could be saved or lost, which will have an impact on players’ earnings and charity donations.
There’s also the acknowledgement that none of this begins without widespread COVID-19 testing. And currently there is a gap between what Tour and tournament officials aspire to do with testing versus the reality of coronavirus monitoring, which health experts say is woefully lagging. There are still seven weeks until the Tour’s restart to bridge this difference, but to go forward without reliable testing is a non-starter, as safety is paramount in every decision.
“The health of everyone involved with the tournament—players, officials and volunteers, as well as everyone in our host community—is of the utmost importance,” says Jason Langwell, executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which begins July 2. “As a result, we are taking additional measures to re-envision the tournament, detail by detail, to make sure that all aspects of the tournament’s operations are well thought out and as safe as possible.”
As seems to be the preface to so many conversations the past month, everything discussed remains dynamic and in flux. Yet, in speaking with more than a dozen tournament directors and officials, a general framework is coming into focus. Here is what the “new” Tour might look like come June.
Financial fallout and TV broadcast
At the moment, fans will not be allowed at the first four events, making the Tour’s return a TV-only affair. To those thinking that doesn’t really affect tournaments’ finances, believing most of their money comes from broadcast rights, think again.
“The weeks leading up to the tournament is our biggest selling window, and I don’t mind telling you we lost $800,000 in ticket sales,” Wilmot says, noting that the figure doesn’t include lost food and alcohol sales during tournament week.
Tournaments are dealing with ticket refunds or deferrals, and others are seeing their sponsors request deferrals or repayment because the companies are going through their own tough times. But the hardest shot to tournaments’ bottom line could be the elimination of pro-ams.
The cost of a pro-am entry fee varies depending on the tournament, day and, frankly, how much juice a person has. (There’s a reason the Tour’s stars always seem to be playing with a CEO during these outings.) But on average, a tournament makes roughly $30,000 per foursome, and the math adds up quickly: The Travelers, for example, has 80 pro-am tee times—28 on Monday and 52 on Wednesday.
Alas, hosting a pro-am also brings with it an extra 1,000 people, minimum, multiple sources said. Using the Travelers example, that's 320 amateur players, 320 caddies, between 30-40 volunteers dedicated to operating the pro-am, the caterers and service members working the night-before galas and those attending the parties that may not be playing in the event. Hosting the pro-am will simply be out of the equation for most events.
Which is highly problematic. The pro-am, coupled with hospitality services to business sponsors and partners, comprises 80-85 percent of a tournament’s revenue. It’s also the primary generator of money distributed to charity. Though officials said the Tour is expected to help, multiple sources indicated the philanthropy hit could be upwards of $4 million for each event without the pro-am/hospitality funnel.
Regarding the broadcast, the tournament sponsor pays a fee to both the Tour and the network for the privilege of getting its name on air. That includes commercials, company logos on screen chyrons and physical ad boards on the course, the five-minute CEO interview in the middle of the broadcast. Certainly, there is value in maintaining that exposure, especially in an environment without any sports competition to speak of.
Conversely, it’s a tough situation to swallow for companies who are pausing advertising campaigns and laying off employees.
As a corollary, multiple sources told Golf Digest there are discussions that purses will be cut, from as low as 10 percent to up to 30. “It’s not a done deal, but sacrifices have to be made,” the director of a tournament in late summer said. “It would be ignorant to proceed with the status quo.”
As for the broadcast itself, officials involved in conversations with CBS Sports (in charge of televising the first 11 Tour events after the season resumes) and the PGA Tour said CBS is working on tinkering with its coverage, possibly cutting the amount of on-site staff by 30-40 percent, both to limit interaction at the course and reduce the amount of people traveling across the country. For context, a CBS official said it employs 70-something on-site workers in a normal week.
“You will still have the talent, production, operation, cameras, audio, technicians, trucks,” a source said. “There won’t be areas cut.”
However, that reduction will manifest in the coverage itself. There will likely be fewer feature holes and groups and limited camera angles. There’s also expected to be a reduced video replay capacity. “We aren’t going back to the ’70s,” a source said. “But this won’t be the Super Bowl, either.”
In an official statement to Golf Digest, CBS Sports said, “The health and safety of our employees is paramount. With that as our top priority, we are working closely with our partners at the PGA Tour on coverage plans.”
As for PGA Tour Live, discussions and research remain ongoing on the availability of the Tour’s live-streaming subscription service for the first four events.
A reduced, but still large, workforce
The PGA Tour’s workforce is sui generis among professional sports, as more than 99 percent of on-site tournament staff is made up of volunteers. That percentage is not an exaggeration; the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am had 13 full-time paid employees working for the week this year, along with three seasonal workers and 2,364 volunteers.
Pebble, with three host golf courses and a large group of amateurs playing, is on the high end of the volunteer spectrum, with most tournaments utilizing between 1,400 to 1,700 heads to execute nearly every aspect of the event. Officials at the Honda Classic, which took place two weeks before the Tour went on hiatus, shared its volunteer breakdown with Golf Digest:
• Ops/Shuttle drivers: 60
• Hole, driving range and other marshals: 580
• Scoring: 380 (Shotlink, 113; standard bearers, 134; walking scorers, 86; plus others)
• Operations for caddies, locker room, misc.: 170
• Player and volunteer support: 110
• Admissions, ticketing and will call: 100
• Pro-am check-in and media center: 35
• Hospitality chalets, entrances: 140
• Volunteer chairperson: 1
• Volunteer coordinator: 1
Chris Condon/PGA Tour
Tournament officials know they won’t have the luxury of their usual corps. They are expecting many will drop out due to ongoing safety concerns, especially retirees, who are more at risk for COVID-19. Yet, at least in the aggregate, there won’t be a major reduction in volunteers. Officials for the first four events—Charles Schwab Challenge, RBC Heritage, Travelers Championship and Rocket Mortgage Classic—estimate they will need 500 to 700 helpers to run their tournament.
“It’s not like we can run a tournament with myself and two other people,” says Michael Tothe, Charles Schwab Challenge tournament director. “It takes the majority of our volunteer workforce. We [can get by] without all of them, but we need many of them. There could be as many as 1,000 people on the property at any one time. People probably don’t realize what goes into this.”
Even in a slimmed down incarnation, that figure may seem high. However, there are areas the Tour has identified as essential, chief among them Shotlink. The Tour’s proprietary data content is key for scoring, stats and its gambling relationships, such as with daily fantasy site DraftKings. A fully-operational Shotlink system, according to multiple officials, ranks only behind the players in tournament priority.
Among other volunteer areas of importance are walking scorers, ball spotters, practice facility attendants, and drivers.
“We won’t need the same number of volunteers, but the roles we do fill will be just as important to the event’s success,” Langwell said. “We will focus on committees that are essential for running the tournament.”
Who else is allowed in?
Fans who have attended a professional event in the past few years may have noticed the driving range has been transformed from a player-caddie sanctuary into a social club. Practice facilities have become packed with media members, agents, managers, instructors, team members, equipment reps, family and other hangers on. Around the clubhouse, there are club members and sponsor executives lingering to get a taste of the big time.
In theory, the solution is self-evident: Unless you’re carrying a staff bag, or your name’s on it … scram. And to be fair, some officials have made that proposal. However, politics are very much in play. How many additional heads will accompany a player is one of the more contentious points at the moment, two officials said. There are also sponsors and power brokers trying to work their way into the mix.
The larger the funnel grows, the more inherent the risk.
“We’re already taking a major financial hit playing the tournament. We can’t just tell a partner they can’t come,” says one tournament official, requesting anonymity due to ongoing conversations with the Tour. “What about a player’s family? Should they be allowed to come, and if so, where are they allowed to go? The best I can tell you is we are having talks with the Tour, the players and their representation on who will come in.” (In a statement, the Tour said the discussions are ongoing.)
How the tournament is covered is another unknown at the moment. “Should the media be allowed in? Where should the media center go, and how far should people be spaced out? How will they interact with players?” Wilmot says. “The Tour has some creative solutions, but again, nothing is truly set.”
Even how the players will be fed, or if they will be allowed to congregate, has proven an obstacle. “The tournament staff,” Langwell says, “is looking at ways to create that safe amount of space in player dining and having regular conversations with our excellent local catering company on other issues related to food safety. We are examining the player registration process and may make changes to eliminate the possibility of people gathering in small spaces.”
Some of the player luxuries like courtesy cars, lounges and family passes may be eliminated. Representatives from Titleist, TaylorMade and Ping told Golf Digest they don’t know if their equipment trucks will be allowed onsite and are awaiting a decision from the Tour.
There’s also an ambitious plan to mitigate the risk by housing everyone—players, caddies and key individuals—in one off-site location, according to Wilmot.
“That’s not usually the case here,” Wilmot says. “The players, Tour officials, sponsors stay in the homes and villas on the island.”
Logistical issues are at the forefront now, especially at some of the Tour’s more isolated destinations. As Wilmot mentioned, there are only so many places that can accommodate a large contingent of people in a relatively short window of booking. Moreover, there is a level of freedom the players would surrender to those running a tournament , and that’s a concession some might not be willing to make. And other people have raised concerns that, should someone test positive for COVID-19 while at the one-site hotel, the rest of the Tour could be susceptible.
“There’s no easy answer,” Wilmot says, “but we’re working with the Tour to identify how to go about this.”
‘It will be a weird look’
Unlike the Heritage, the Charles Schwab Challenge, Travelers Championship and Rocket Mortgage Classic had not begun their build-outs when the Tour went into hiatus, so that saved each tournament at the bank.
The build-out is one of the most costly efforts of staging an event, running upwards of $3 million, or about 20 to 25 percent of a tournament’s budget. Because of the price tag, multiple officials associated with late summer and fall tournaments told Golf Digest that they are delaying construction on stands and box suites as long as possible, believing the spectator ban may be extended, and thus not wanting to construct facilities that won’t be used.
“A lot of contingencies,” said a director of a tournament slated for the middle of summer. “We’re planning for no fans or limited fans. If we do have a hospitality build, it will be a scaled-back one.
“There’s really no other sport with the amount of preparation needed as there is for golf, from agronomics to building different venues needed to conduct it. A basketball court is there. It’s not changing. In golf, 30-45 days out from the event is about the longest we can put off building. This really has been an incredible exercise.”
It won’t be a barren landscape; TV towers will have to be assembled, and some tournaments are toying with installing ropes (the Travelers decided against them). Most tournaments plan on having some type of scoreboards for players but were unsure of specifics. Players are realizing the altered scenery will be an obstacle.
“One of the biggest changes will be seeing the courses we play with no stands. That’ll change the look a lot,” says Marc Leishman. “It’ll be a weird look, that’s for sure.”
A few players mention it could affect the competition, citing Jordan Spieth’s win at the 2016 Colonial was facilitated by a free drop from the 17th hole’s bleachers. “He would have been 30-40 yards over the green and probably in the 14th fairway,” said Ryan Palmer, who was paired with Spieth that day and plays Colonial regularly. “A lot of players are going to see a different course. It’s different with the stands there—the back of No. 8, No. 17. Some of the greens you could go long on before, but not without stands now.”
There’s also the recognition an event without fans will be an adjustment.
“I think some guys will struggle with it more than others,” Leishman said. “Some feed off the energy the fans produce, and others can create their own. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.” Added Palmer: “It will be a test of showing up and having your game ready and having a strong mental game that week to keep yourself motivated.”
The biggest question mark
Of course, the schedule won’t begin without the availability of widespread testing. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan made that point clear last week.
“We’re going to need to be able to test players, caddies and other constituents before we return, but we need to do so in a way that’s not going to take away from the critical need that we’re currently facing [in society],” Monahan said. “And we feel confident, based on the advice that we’re getting from medical experts, that we’ll be in that position.”
Less than seven weeks before the hoped for return at Colonial, state governors and health officials assert there’s a shortage of COVID-19 tests. At this point, tournaments have reiterated Monahan’s promise, but how they will go about it—will players be tested before coming to a tournament or once they arrive, who is in charge of the testing, how often those involved will be tested, etc.—remains unclear.
Also left to be answered: What happens if a player or caddie tests positive mid-tournament? Are they forced to withdraw? What about the players and caddies paired with someone who tests positive?
“We are asking the same questions you’re asking,” a tournament official says. “We won’t force the tournament to go on until we get answers.”
Another sticking point is who gets tested. Tournament officials universally agree player and caddie monitoring should be in place, but they are less certain about tests for their volunteer force. It’s both a moral and business dilemma, Wilmot says, and the biggest question mark the Tour faces.
“Everyone’s safety is the No. 1 concern,” Wilmot says. “We’re all—us, the Tour, the other first events—coordinating and bouncing ideas off each other to see how we can make this work. But we’re not going to jeopardize the health of the very people we depend on to bring this event to life. The Tour has a medical staff. They are identifying the right and the wrong. We will follow their lead.”
“We will be extremely diligent,” Langwell adds. “The RMC may incorporate further testing and distancing precautions than other tournaments choose to do, but we are confident we are taking the smartest, safest approach with this.”
• • •
With the innumerable vagaries in play, one tournament director compared the planning process to “trying to hit a fairway if the fairway was constantly moving.” They also acknowledge the plug could still be pulled on their events. “It takes months to get ready, a night to undue it all,” Wilmot says.
Yet there is palpable hope that their tournaments have become more than golf exhibitions, that the undertakings have a purpose.
“It was more than just putting a date on a calendar,” Langwell says. “This exercise has helped us get even closer to the community and fired up the team. As much as we all love golf and are excited to bring back the Rocket Mortgage Classic for its second year, when you know you are working to help a community you love continue to grow and overcome challenges, there’s no describing the energy and enthusiasm you have.”
Wilmot shares a slightly different perspective. He’s not hosting the usual Heritage in June; he already packed up that tournament and waved goodbye in March. Instead, he’s hosting something more: a response.
“Everyone’s way of life was altered. The damage is done,” Wilmot says. “But second chances are something to be celebrated. We’re going to get through this darn thing, and hopefully give people something fun to watch while we do it.”
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