And we are back, sports fans.
Not with a bang. More like with the soothing sounds of silence.
And the odd curse.
NBC golf announcer Jim Nantz was barely back on the air in this fan-free era when Jon Rahm’s chip-in on the eighth hole was greeted with a “pretty f—ing good there” from a voice off-camera. Clear as a bell.
Nance immediately had to apologize to the television audience, many of whom are avid golfers and hear profanities worse than that when playing with friends at their local course.
The PGA Tour made its return Thursday after a 91-day pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. Women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, hockey, basketball, football, baseball all are plotting ways to return to the North American sports scene. But the stars of the men’s tour, most of them, were back at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, in what Nance said was “live sports, real competition.”
Eleven tournaments, including the RBC Canadian Open and the British Open, were cancelled. Golf courses around the continent have been open for a month or more as the sport offers a good deal of social distancing as part of regular practice.
But golfers come from around the world to play on the PGA Tour, which makes it more complicated, and pretty much killed this year’s Canadian tournament at St. George’s in Etobicoke. Commissioner Jay Monahan and his players knew all eyes would be upon them at the Colonial and watching for any mistakes they might make.
Few were made, although Monahan will undoubtedly have a private chat with Brooks Koepka after he was caught on camera gobbing on the course while he waited to play. Caddies handled flagsticks the same as always, players reached into the cup to retrieve their own golf balls and exchanged clubs freely with their caddies. Folks did seem to be standing awfully close at times in the Texas sun.
“I’d say for the viewing public just to give the players and caddies a little bit of leeway if they see something on TV that isn’t quite right,” said world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 2-under 68. “We’re having to figure it out as we go along, as well.”
Without fans, the scenery included more homes, tents, cars and empty fields than you would usually see. But the NBC broadcast in many ways seemed very similar, with the same voices providing commentary. Nance was in a tower overlooking the 18th green, analysts Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo were in an Orlando studio and reporters Dottie Pepper and Mark Immelman patrolled the course.
“It’s a sense of peace, really,” said the always excellent Pepper as she described the atmosphere at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Pepper noted the absence of spectators created an environment similar to what most golfers experience when they compete in college, in junior golf or on the lower tiers of the sport.
“The silence isn’t totally bizarre,” Pepper said.
The shot-tracking technology, such a part of television coverage nowadays, looked the same. The chatter about club selection and swing techniques was the same. The galleries weren’t there, but that also meant the ridiculous “You Da Man!” screams weren’t heard either.
Remember, not every week is The Masters. Lots of golf tournaments don’t draw big crowds on Thursdays, and many holes on different golf courses don’t accommodate galleries around the green. So it was different, but actually not all that different. If you like watching golf, you would watch. If you don’t, you wouldn’t.
The test in terms of drama and excitement will come more this weekend in the final rounds. After that, we’ll all be watching as the tour moves on and players continue to be tested for the virus. There are 148 players in this week’s field, and all of them have reportedly tested negative. Including caddies and essential personnel, 487 tests came back negative for the coronavirus. On the developmental Korn Ferry Tour, one golfer and three caddies have tested positive.
Tiger Woods is not in Fort Worth. He hasn’t played since February on the tour, and it’s not clear when he plans to play again. But McIlroy, Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are at this week’s event, which has attracted a stronger field than usual. Seventy-seven players were under par on Day 1.
Former world No. 1 Justin Rose had a share of the lead with Harold Varner III after a sparkling 63. Bryson DeChambeau, who has bulked up like he’s training to play linebacker this fall, started with a 65, as did Jordan Spieth as he tries to become one of the best in the world again.
Adam Hadwin, of Abbotsford, B.C., was in the group at 65. Corey Conners, of Listowel, Ont., was at 66.
“People are excited to see sports coming back,” said Spieth. “It’s pretty exciting that golf is one of the first ones to do so.”
It’s going to see what kind of television numbers golf can generate with little or no competition. The tour plans to go with no fans on the course for the first four tournaments, and then will reassess.
There are still three majors scheduled: the PGA Championship in August, the U.S. Open in September and The Masters, now moved to November. The impact of having no galleries will be much greater on those events, and even more so on the Ryder Cup, which is scheduled for September at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
Thomas, who shot 64, described playing without fans as “eerie” and “weird.”
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“We’re pretty much clapping for each other out there,” he smiled.
It was different. But definitely better than nothing.
Even in silence.