Tour Championship represents a win for sports in time of coronavirus

090220 Atlanta: PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan holds a live press conference with the media during the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
090220 Atlanta: PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan holds a live press conference with the media during the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

It’s not so bad being an elite PGA Tour player in the time of coronavirus.

You play a game custom-suited to social distancing, outside, spread over acres, the sporting event most equivalent to patio dining.

Your peers tend to conduct themselves with a reasonable degree of personal responsibility, which may not play at a frat mixer but is very helpful when traveling coast-to-coast to play professional golf in many a hot-spot.

And your governing body is committed to keeping purses at their Everest-like peaks even with no paying customers in the hospitality suites. That certainly is clear at East Lake this week, where the 30-man field will be playing for the FedEx Cup championship and a total purse of $45 million, the winner taking one-third of that.

ExplorePhotos: Scene Wednesday at Tour Championship

Just making it to East Lake was a great victory — not only for the playoff survivors, but for the entire sport itself.

Although PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan was not exactly turning celebratory laps around East Lake on Wednesday. “We’re not claiming victory by any stretch,” he said during his traditional pre-Tour Championship news conference. “In fact, we continue to learn and adapt. But I’m so proud of the team we put into place in March to help solve this giant jigsaw puzzle.”

Along with so much else, golf shut down in March as the threat of COVID-19 was revealing itself. The PGA Tour went dark for three months as it sought a way to press on and save some semblance of a season.

At the restart, on June 11 in Texas, no one could be sure how long any good intention could survive all the uncertainty that accompanies the virus. NASCAR had begun its restart three weeks before, and the sports realm was just getting used to holding its collective breath, awaiting the next series of nasal swabs.

Is anyone surprised that here we are in September with the PGA Tour fully preparing to put an exclamation point on a season that played out uninterrupted since then? Oh, it hasn’t been simple or easy. Thirteen events were cancelled, but 13 more survived. Fans and pro-ams were nixed. Great shots were met with all the appreciative noise of a poetry reading.

But pro golf in some very recognizable form survived, the simple point of it all.

“I think we can congratulate each other and everybody else for the good job we’ve done because I am surprised we’ve been able to go on without any single problems,” Jon Rahm, the No. 2 seed at this Tour Championship, said Wednesday.

Declared former Georgia Bulldog Harris English, seventh in FedEx Cup points entering Friday’s start of the Tour Championship: “I feel like the golfers as a whole have taken this really seriously, and it’s been pretty incredible that we’ve made it this far. I’m very happy to be here and excited about obviously playing this week and getting started with next season.”

Monahan had many backs to pat when asked how many doubts he may have harbored when the Tour first cranked up in June.

“I was confident that we had the right plan, but I was uncertain as to whether or not, like everybody else, you’d be able to get to this point,” the commissioner said.

“I knew that we had a very well-thought out plan that was supported by the communities where we were returning and supported by our sponsors. ... The amount of input (the players) gave us in returning and the responsibility they took in our return, that gave us confidence.”

Harris English hits from the bunker to the first green during his practice round for the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Harris English hits from the bunker to the first green during his practice round for the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

To this stage, after 13 first-tier events since the restart, seven players and four caddies have tested positive on site. Three more tested positive at home. The closest thing to a spike came following the second event at Hilton Head, but since then, there has been virtually no noise on the coronavirus front.

The reward for their vigilance has been one successful major — the PGA Championship — thus far, with two more in the wings for September and November. Earning opportunities dried up while golf was on hiatus, but when it returned, there would be no hard negotiating for lesser pay, as was seen in baseball. Purses remained unaffected.

In hard times such as these, Monahan was asked how golf was able to maintain its big paydays, with the biggest one yet planned for this weekend.

There was no choice, he said, as the PGA Tour needed to keep purses high to protect its future as the top tour in the world.

Nor was there any need to apologize for such large payouts amid so much financial strife, he said, so long as the Tour kept its promise to be a major charitable force as well. He cited as an example that through alternate fundraising means, the Tour Championship should at least match the $3.5 million donated to the East Lake Foundation last year.

“I’m proud of the fact that the purses that we play for continue to attract the best players in the world that are allowing us to continue to do that work,” Monahan said.

“I think that’s a bigger picture than just how much money one player gets,” Rahm said.

The PGA Tour is plotting the next little step in the slow slog back to “normalcy” (professional golf division). Big money-raising opportunities, pre-tournament pro-am events have appeared already on the over-50 and minor league PGA Tour offshoots. Monahan said the first on the big Tour is scheduled for later this month at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic.

As far as getting the fans back on site, that remains too complex to predict, the commissioner said.

“Just given the consistently fluid nature of the virus and the way different communities are responding, each discussion is a different discussion,” he said. “You may see different tournaments returning at different levels as we get into the end of the year and into 2021.”

For now, just getting to the first tee of the Tour Championship on Friday will be semi-monumental.

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