Several precautions in place as competitive golf returns to Georgia

There was plenty of spacing between golfers during the Milton Martin Honda Classic Monday in Gainesville. (Steve Schaefer for the AJC)

There was plenty of spacing between golfers during the Milton Martin Honda Classic Monday in Gainesville. (Steve Schaefer for the AJC)

Competitive golf returned to Georgia on Monday and it bore a striking resemblance to the game that was put on hold for two-plus months by COVID-19.

Thanks to social distancing, the only thing missing from the third-annual Milton Martin Honda Classic, a 36-hole event conducted by the Georgia PGA at the Chattahoochee Golf Club in Gainesville, was high fives and handshakes. Otherwise, the return to competitive golf was a rousing success.

“I made a birdie on the 18th hole and I threw my hands up and said, ‘The gallery goes wild,’ ” said Wyatt Detmer, the PGA professional at Summer Grove in Newnan. “The guys in my group were all laughing with me. You can still have fun, but you just have to have fun from here to there, away from each other.”

The mood was relatively light, starting with the first group off the No. 1 tee at 8:30 a.m. That’s where Georgia Golf Hall of Famer Stephen Keppler, the PGA director of golf at Marietta Country Club, put the opening ball in play.

“So, I hit the first tee shot at the 2001 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club and now I’ve hit the first post-Coronavirus shot for the Georgia PGA,” Keppler said with a laugh. “It’s one of the highlights of my career.”

While there may be some symbolism involved with Keppler batting leadoff, he claimed there was an ulterior motive.

“Those guys (the Georgia PGA staff) know that when I have an early tee time, I bring breakfast,” he said. “I think they were just hungry.”

Keppler wasn’t the only big-time player in the 120-man field. He was joined by fellow Georgia Golf Hall of Famers Sonny Skinner, James Mason and Tim Weinhart, assorted club professionals from around the state and a variety of amateurs that ranged in age from seniors like Chris Hall, all the way to 17-year-old Brenden Tigert, who drove up from Savannah for the competition

“I think guys are itching to get back out and compete,” said Justin Martin, a PGA assistant at the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta. “To be able to get those competitive juices going and be able to see some guys they haven’t seen in a while – even if it’s from a distance – to feel some type of normalcy. I think I can speak for a lot of the field, we’ve all missed that.”

There were a few alterations to the tournament’s code of conduct. Only one rider was allowed per cart and players were asked to stand at least six feet apart. In order to stem the transmission of germs, players could not touch the flagsticks, which had to remain in the hole, and each was issued their own rake to be used in a sand trap.

There were no printed scorecards. One player in each group – typically the youngest member – was drafted to post the scores electronically on their smartphone. Players verified the numbers in a common scoring area, but there was nothing to sign.

And each player was handed a plastic bag on the first tee that included tees, ball markers and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

“We’re just trying to eliminate as many touchpoints as we can,” said Mike Paull, the executive director of the Georgia PGA. “We want to keep everyone safe.”

And no one seemed to mind the few minor inconveniences – no communal post-round beers or burgers, for example – and were just pleased to be competing. Most of the professionals have had little time to practice or play because their courses have been swamped with golfers. Few pros seemed to mind being away from the store from a couple of days.

“I’m really glad they’re doing this, because those of us that showed up here, we really enjoy playing golf and we’ll do whatever safety measures we need to do in order to get back to playing a little bit,” Skinner said.

The response to tournament golf has been overwhelming. A field of 156 is already in place for the Georgia PGA Junior Championship and the Yamaha Atlanta Open, set for June 22-23, is already sold out and has an extensive waiting list.