PGA Tour’s perseverance made US Open at Winged Foot possible

It was Friday the 13th, and the world was about to change in ways no one could imagine.

That was the day the PGA Tour — hours before the second round of its signature event, The Players Championship — hastily shut down its 2020 season as COVID-19 was spreading faster than the California wildfires.

At that moment back in March, the golf world, sports world and the world in general had no idea what was ahead.

Playing a U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which is located just a few miles from one of the first major COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S., New Rochelle, did not seem like even a remote possibility.

Yet here we are this week, with the U.S. Open being played at Winged Foot, some three months later than originally scheduled and without spectators.

The best players in the world will convene at the venerable club — which has hosted five U.S. Opens, the most recent in 2006.

Tiger Woods will be at Winged Foot. So will Phil Mickelson, who has a score to settle with the 18th hole of the West Course after his 2006 debacle. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and the rest of the best will be there.

And none of it would be possible without the trail-blazing effort of the PGA Tour, led by its commissioner Jay Monahan, who after a 13-week pause restarted the PGA Tour season in June while much of the country was still in a shelter-at-home mode.

“I was confident that we had the right plan,” Monahan said last week at the Tour Championship. “But I was uncertain as to whether or not, like everybody else, you’d be able to get to this point. As gut-wrenching as that day and the weeks to follow were, as we ultimately canceled or postponed nearly 30 percent of our season, the adaptability, innovation, and collaboration that has brought us to this week is incredibly gratifying.

“As a sport, we have persevered through this pandemic and have found a way to keep our Tour moving forward.”

As of the conclusion of the Tour Championship last week, the PGA Tour had gone five consecutive weeks without a positive COVID-19 test among players and caddies. Since the restart, 3,651 on-site tests had been administered with seven positives among players and four among caddies.

Translation: The plan has been working.

It helped pave a way for the PGA Championship to be played last month at Harding Park in San Francisco, for the U.S. Open to be played this week and for the Masters to go on as rescheduled in November.

Back on March 13, as players hastily cleaned out their lockers at TPC Sawgrass after The Players Championship was canceled, few believed any of this would be possible.

“I had no idea what was going to happen when we had that three-month break,’’ Harris English said.

“There were times that I wasn’t sure how far we were going to get,’’ said Kevin Kisner, who’s a member of the PGA Tour’s players advisory council.

Since the restart in June with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Texas, the PGA Tour has traveled to 12 states across three time zones.

On the golf course, the play has been riveting at times, dominated by big names. Six of the current top-10 players in the world have accounted for nine of the 13 wins since the restart — Johnson (2), Rahm (2), Collin Morikawa (2), Thomas, Simpson and Bryson DeChambeau.

Rahm, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, called it “a testament to everybody involved’’ that has made this work.

The PGA Tour plan, outlined by a 37-page manifesto of protocols it created, was essentially to create a “bubble’’ like the NBA and NHL did by keeping its athletes confined to certain spaces and out of the mainstream during the season.

That’s fundamentally impossible in golf considering the players are all independent contractors. Not all players were staying in the same hotels at tournaments, some opting for housing on their own. Same for caddies.

“We see other sports struggling with it, and we all keep our mindset even when we go home,’’ Rahm said. “I would like to hang out with my friends and I would like to do a lot of things and go to restaurants and have a good time and a weekend off, but I can’t. You can’t risk it, because I know I can test positive and indirectly put somebody else in danger. It’s clear that if you do what you’re supposed to do, sports can go on.”

Golf has done just that.

And thankfully, because of that we get a U.S. Open this week at Winged Foot.

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