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Sports and COVID-19: A look inside the new normal of professional sporting events

By Patrick Carr standard-Examiner - | Jul 3, 2020

FARMINGTON — A handful of golf carts sat empty last week on the cart path between Oakridge Country Club’s clubhouse and the practice green just down the hill.

A man wearing a face covering sat in one cart. Another man approached.

“I can’t sit in the cart with you this year, what the hell happened?” asked the man who approached.

“COVID-19,” said the man in the cart.

This brief exchange during the early days of last week’s Korn Ferry Tour’s Utah Championship professional golf tournament was a glimpse of the new normal for sporting events in a world grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week’s tournament at Oakridge Country Club in Farmington was played without fans on the course, though that didn’t stop a small handful from getting on the course anyway throughout the week, thanks to some loopholes.

Players are tested for COVID-19 as part of the PGA Tour’s return-to-play protocol and certain areas of the clubhouse were cordoned off to prevent group interaction. Temperature screenings took place for those driving up to the clubhouse parking lot.

Hand sanitizer bottles were at every tee box along the course. Signs strongly encouraging physical distancing were everywhere. Almost every Golf Channel TV production worker and most tournament volunteers wore face coverings.

There were some fans outside of the gates, though.

The concrete sidewalks on Shepard Lane, which fortuitously bisects the front nine and most of the back nine, gave fans a view of the par-4 10th hole (which for the tournament purposes was actually No. 1), the par-3 15th, the tee boxes for holes 11 and 16, and the No. 14 green.

PATRICK CARR, Standard-Examiner

Daniel Summerhays (center) speaks with his family on the Shepard Lane sidewalk between holes at Oakridge Country Club during the Korn Ferry Tour’s Utah Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 25, 2020 in Farmington. Fans weren’t allowed at the tournament but some still watched from the sidewalks.

Daniel Summerhays’ family, particularly, was there to watch him play in what was, at the time, supposed to be his final pro event.

Summerhays finished the No. 1 hole and walked across Shepard Lane. His family cheered.

He waited for the group on the nearby 16th tee box to tee off and in the process of waiting, had a nice moment to interact with his wife and children on the sidewalk.

“Kind of weird times being able to watch through the fence, but at least they could watch a few shots and watch me get up-and-down on — I keep wanting to say 15, but No. 6 — so yeah, my wife’s dying that she’s not able to walk with me, but grateful to have the support,” Summerhays said.

If there was another person who was really aching to have fans present, it was Cole Ponich, who grew up off the No. 2 fairway at Oakridge. Ponich went to Davis High and now attends BYU.

“It was a little disappointing. I mean, I understand the whole situation but it was just disappointing, because I know my parents really wanted to be there for the first professional tournament I played in,” Ponich said.

When he and other golfers walked down the second fairway (No. 11 during the tournament), they could see a European-style house with two banners affixed to the decks out back.

One said “Happy 20th Birthday Cole Ponich” and the other read “Good Luck Cole” with brown and gold letters.

During Friday’s round for the group with Patrick Fishburn, French golfer Cyril Bouniol and New Zealander Steven Alker, there was actually a steward standing on the No. 11 tee box holding a ‘Quiet’ when each player prepared for his tee shot.

A blue PT Cruiser driving east stopped as Bouniol stepped to the tee, then drove away after Bouniol hit his tee shot.

“I definitely understand the protocols. We’re definitely grateful that we’re able to play and get back in the swing of things, but it definitely stinks to be 15 minutes away from home and not have anyone out here,” said Fishburn, a Fremont High and BYU alumnus who lives in Ogden.” It’s just the way it is. Like I said, we’re just grateful that we’re able to play and participate; it was a long three months.”

There were not customary handshakes when groups finished their rounds. Those were replaced by “air” fist or elbow bumps, tips of the hat and other non-touching gestures.

Those gestures weren’t limited just to post-round acknowledgements.

“You know, you give a little fake wave every once in a while and a little hat tip, you get used to kind of thanking the crowd and reacting and feeding off of their reactions,” Summerhays said. “Preston (Summerhays) hit a great one in off No. 4 today and he kind of gave it the hat tip and, I think on the first hole, I even like gave the little wave. I made about a 25- or 30-footer, gave it the wave and no one was even watching.”

A limited number of media members were allowed to cover the event, and were required to wear masks while inside the designated media center. Each media member was given a bag with face coverings, disinfectant wipes and PGA-branded hand sanitizer.

PATRICK CARR, Standard-Examiner

News media and PGA Tour employees gather around to interview Preston Summerhays following the completion of his golf round at the Korn Ferry Tour’s Utah Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 25, 2020, at Oakridge Country Club in Farmington. A fence separated interview subjects from the media, who stood in designated spots in the press area due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Post-round interviews with golfers were conducted outside, with physical distancing enforced by numerous black X’s taped on the ground.

There was no grandstand behind the 18th green, no TV tower on the back nine and only a limited TV production crew presence — though the TV truck compound was still well and truly visible off the No. 1 fairway.

The whole event was set up to prevent mingling between different groups of people, such as the players, their caddies, tournament staff, Korn Ferry Tour staff and the media.

If golfers stayed at the club after their round, it was so they could practice — and that was it.

As one golfer proclaimed Thursday morning while hitting practice putts: “I think you can count me out of the locker room shower.”

FOCUS ELSEWHEREAs much as athletes would like to say they’re completely focused on the competition at hand, news about positive COVID-19 tests at the PGA Tour’s Traveler’s Championship event in Connecticut struck an ominous chord at Oakridge.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, two men were standing in front of the entrance to Oakridge’s clubhouse, hunched over a smartphone.

“They’re having a press conference at 12,” one said.

The other man looked worried.

The aforementioned press conference was held by PGA commissioner Jay Monahan in light of news that world No. 1 player Brooks Koepka’s caddie had tested positive for COVID-19.

Koepka withdrew from the tournament, as had former U.S. Open champions Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson, due to close contact with people who had tested positive.

Koepka’s little brother, Chase, also withdrew after he played a practice round with Brooks and his caddie.

The day before, Cameron Champ withdrew from the tournament after becoming the second PGA player, at the time, to test positive. Champ won the Utah Championship in 2018.

Monahan’s press conference played on almost every TV screen in the clubhouse.

Golfers and their caddies were glued to their phones, halting putting and chipping practice to watch Monahan address a growing crisis.

Two golfers walked out of the clubhouse and discussed “false positives” and “false negatives,” eventually navigating the semantics and realizing that they both hoped the two caddies at the Traveler’s had gotten false positives.

If that sent shockwaves throughout the golfers and their handlers, imagine what happened Tuesday this week when three golfers at the Korn Ferry Tour event in Colorado tested positive for COVID-19 as part of the pre-tournament screening process.

This is a glimpse inside the world of sports in a COVID world and, perhaps, a sign of how things will be in the near future.


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