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SPORTING CHANCES: Professional Golf

Evaluating Professional Golf’s Response to COVID-19

As the first round of The PGA Championship tees off this week, let’s take a look at how professional golf has adjusted to the pandemic. Of all the professional sports in America, golf is the one most adaptable our new reality of pandemic safety. However, the tangled structure of professional golf makes it more vulnerable than you’d think. 

We will divide this article into four parts:

  • The size of the operation
  • Current COVID-19 protocols
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at what professional golf is currently doing to keep its players and spectators safe, let’s untangle some of the knottier aspects of the sport to understand exactly what we are talking about when we talk about professional golf.  

The Size of the Operation

Professional golf might seem straightforward—players use clubs to put a small white ball into a tiny cup by hitting the ball as few times as possible—but it is surprisingly complicated. And that complication has everything to do with money. 

Let’s go back to 1916, to a department store magnate named Rodman Wanamaker. He was looking for a way to make more money off of golf equipment, so he helped to found the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. 

The idea was simple: organize all the professional golfers in America, create some friendly (and splashy) competitions, draw attention to the sport, and sell some golf gear. 

It was a rising tide designed to lift all boats, and it did. Golf equipment sales increased and so did the notoriety of the golf pros. In turn, the pros got more clients and could charge more for their services. 

You see, at this time in the history of the sport, professional golfers were people who taught golf, ran golf courses, and owned pro shops. You could, rather easily, take lessons from the best golfers in the country because many of them made a living by providing services to golfers. 

The tournaments were recreational and promotional. But a golfer could not live off of tournament winnings alone. All that changed with the arrival of television. 

Television brought an enormous revenue stream that dramatically increased the prize money from the tournaments. By the 1960s, professional golfers became celebrities competing for fortunes. And they did not want to share their new winnings with the rest of The PGA members who were back at the country clubs teaching swinging lessons to mortgage brokers. 

So, in 1968–1969, a who’s-who of professional golfers—including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gardner Dickinson, Frank Beard—broke off from the PGA to form a new organization: The Tournament Players Division (TPD). This new member group was for tournament golfers only. Eventually, the TPD rebranded itself as the PGA TOUR. 

This schism led to two important potentially confusing distinctions:

Golf Pro vs. Pro Golfer

  • Golf Pros are the original professional golfers. They make their money by providing golf-related services. They are not household names, and can easily be found at your local golf course.  
  • Pro Golfers are the tournament players. They make their money by playing and winning golf tournaments. These people are famous, sponsored, and often have lucrative endorsement deals. 

The PGA TOUR vs. The PGA of America

  • The PGA TOUR is a member organization made up of Pro Golfers. This organization oversees the tournament schedules and eligibility of Pro Golfers. 
  • The PGA of America (a.k.a. The PGA) is a member organization made up of Golf Pros. It is divided into regions and divisions and oversees the proper training and teaching of golf and its related activities. 

All of this gets even more confusing when we look at this week’s tournament. The PGA Championship is run and “owned” by The PGA of America, not the PGA TOUR. Though it is also a PGA TOUR event. So members of both the PGA TOUR and the PGA of America will be playing this week. 

The complexity of golf’s “organization” goes layers and layers deeper. There is the USGA, NGF, the IGF, and many more PGA’s and PGA TOURS. But we will stop here. 

The important takeaway is that professional golf is thornier than you would think. As we will see later, that creates distinct vulnerabilities to COVID-19. But first, let’s turn our attention to how golf has adapted to the pandemic. 

Current COVID-19 Protocols

Golf is played outdoors on immensely spacious grounds with great distances between players. This makes golf perhaps the safest sport of play during the pandemic. 

When we look at how and where COVID-19 spreads, we see that golf avoids nearly all the regular transmission avenues. In fact, COVID-19 would barely be an issue if we could go through our day-to-day lives with the space and fresh air provided by a golf course. 

Unlike the NBA—which has teams, owners, unions, stadiums—golf is an individual sport, and each player is their own boss and owner. This means that golf, as a professional sport, has far fewer bureaucratic hurdles to clear before getting its product back out in the world. 

Unlike all other ball sports in America, golf also doesn’t require players to interact with any communal equipment. Each player has their own clubs, golf balls, gloves, tees, etc. It is an extremely unlikely sport for a COVID-19 outbreak.  

Professional golf, however, goes from safe to potentially problematic with the introduction of spectators. 

People tend to congregate in large crowds, following the leaders and the most famous golfers at a tournament. And those crowds can become enormous if the leader also happens to be the most famous golfer on the course.

For this reason, justifiably, both the PGA and the PGA TOUR have focused most of their safety protocols on the spectators. The PGA TOUR and the PGA Championship both have videos and web pages dedicated to COVID-19 safety. 

Both web pages cover all the basic CDC-approved safety precautions such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing/sanitizing your hands. They also have special stipulations to keep the golfers themselves safe: no handshakes, fist bumps, or autographs. 

The main difference between the PGA TOUR’s protocols and The PGA Championship’s is word choices, tone, and consequences. 

The PGA Championship—run by the PGA of America—adopts a slightly more laissez-faire tone. They recommend most of these precautions but stop short of mandating all of them. 

The PGA TOUR, on the other hand, requires compliance with their safety standards. In fact, non-compliance comes with consequences. At the bottom of the PGA TOUR’s webpage “Know Before You Go,” they have a Code of Conduct that stipulates that failure to comply with their safety rules will lead to expulsion and loss of tickets. 

This leads us straight to the safety issues inherent with the complex, interconnected, overlapping nature of professional golf. 

Areas for Improvement

Let’s stay with this week’s tournament and its specific issues first. Given the lack of continuity of messaging from these two bodies, which set of rules will a spectator be asked to follow at 2021’s PGA Championship?

The tournament itself does not mention any repercussions for spectators who do not follow their recommendations. The PGA TOUR, on the other hand, will kick you out for failing to comply with their safety requirements. This can lead to understandable confusion—and potential frustration—for spectators who attend this week’s tournament. 

After talking with a representative for the PGA Championship, we were informed that at this year’s PGA Championship in South Carolina, the less-strict tournament guidelines will be in effect. This is due, in large part, to the governor of South Carolina’s recent relaxation of the state’s outdoor mask policy. Getting this clarification, however, required contacting the PGA Championship directly. 

The main areas for improvement for professional golf as we see it are two-fold:

  • Standardization
  • Communication

Standardization

With so many different, disparate governing bodies in golf, there should be a single entity that oversees safety. You can understand why one doesn’t exist: until now, it wasn’t necessary. 

As mentioned above, golf doesn’t have teams and owners. In reality, it doesn’t really even have a “league” in the sense that we understand it in other sports. Players are free to play wherever they can qualify to play. This makes golf a far looser sport when it comes to safety. 

But, it is an extremely strict sport when it comes to rules and regulations. In the pre-pandemic era, golf didn’t have to worry about safety issues. In the COVID-19 era, however, it would be a good idea to bring a little of their clear communication and attention to detail to the realm of safety. 

A little more standardization in pandemic safety protocols would go a long way to making golf even safer. 

Communication

Take a look at the PGA and the PGA TOUR websites and try to find any information about COVID-19. You can’t. Because it is not there. 

When you search for “COVID-19” on the PGA TOUR site, you have to scroll through the results to find their “Know Before You Go” page. A search is not possible in the PGA of America’s page without becoming a member. 

The only site that had easy-to-find COVID-19 related safety information is the website for this week’s PGA Championship. It is right there on the top menu bar. 

This is not a great report card for the PGA TOUR or the PGA. Both should have COVID-19 safety information on their main pages and make that information easy to find. 

These organizations take COVID-19 seriously, but they undercut the seriousness of the pandemic and their own treatment of it by inadvertently hiding their COVID-19 safety information. 

The Bottom Line

The winner of this week’s PGA Championship will be awarded The Wanamaker Trophy in honor of Rodman Wanamaker, a man who wanted to sell more golf equipment. What he began over one hundred years ago, has grown into a billion-dollar industry that, at one point in time, produced the first billion-dollar athlete

Golf is likely the safest sport we have from a COVID-19 safety perspective. It is outside and played with natural social distancing. Players have their own clubs, bags, golf balls, and equipment. 

Spectators bring risk to the course with them. To maximize safety—for both the players and the fans—the governing bodies of professional golf should standardize their safety procedures and the consequences for people who fail to adhere to them. Then they need to communicate those standards clearly and easily to everyone in the world of golf. 

In the absence of a clear, unified national policy in America, this clarity and standardization in golf will become more critical in the coming months. As pandemic policies continue to relax on a state-by-state basis—as happened in South Carolina for the PGA Championship—professional golf needs to ensure that its players and spectators know what is fair and foul on the course. 

Join us next month for another edition of Sporting Chances, when we will look at the world of tennis, just in time for Wimbledon. Until then, enjoy the PGA Championships and please remember to get vaccinated. For help finding your nearest vaccination location, please visit the CDC’s website


Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production. 


DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.