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Embracing a new normal, the PGA Tour show will go on at the Travelers Championship

The Hartford Courant — By Dom Amore The Hartford Courant

June 21-- HARTFORD, Conn.-The morning after the first PGA Tour tournament following the sport's return from a coronavirus-related shutdown, Nathan Grube, director of the Travelers Championship, got a "top 10" list of observations from Michael Tothe, who'd successfully staged the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas.

The last issue Grube expected to hear about a tournament with no fans was a problem with noise.

"Michael said, 'it's quieter than you think,'" Grube said, "and you might actually want people to quiet others down, because sound travels way across the golf course. Usually, you have these structures to block sound, or you have a general noise level of people talking. Make sure your volunteers know, your food service knows, everybody knows you can say something behind 18 and somebody on the 18th tee might hear you."

So without the general level of chatter that usually becomes neutral noise to the golfer, any conversation anywhere on the course could be a putter's distraction. Signs imploring "QUIET PLEASE" will have an added meaning when the Travelers Championship goes off as scheduled, but under unimaginably unique circumstances, Thursday-Sunday at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.

Since April 16, the day the tour raised some eyebrows with its plan to restart, Grube and his staff have been working to reinvent the Travelers to fit these extraordinary times. With the pandemic reaching its peak in Connecticut, hospitalizations nearing 2,000 on April 22, plans were launched with hope, but nothing approaching certainty. "We don't have all the answers as to how, but we will figure this out," Andy Bessette, the Travelers' executive VP and chief administrative officer, vowed at the time.

"There was a moment when we were all looking forward saying, 'Hey, this is aspirational,'" Grube said in an interview with The Courant last week. "We're going to plan for it, but there is a lot that has to happen. We knew there was no guarantee we were going to be able to play this, but we need to plan as if we are. We had a very open dialogue with the Governor's office and the town health officials and we got to this point where we will be able to have it in a healthy, safe environment, but there were times along the way where we knew a lot would have to happen for us to be able to host the event."

Connecticut began reopening on May 20, and on June 17 entered its second phase, in which hotels reopened, a critical need for the tournament. Now all the elements are in place for the Travelers to commence, with the benefit of the tour's experiences at Fort Worth June 11-14, and in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The Marriott in downtown Hartford will be the host hotel, with three others chosen as part of the "bubble." More players than usual, including three-time Travelers champ Bubba Watson, will be driving their own mobile homes and parking in secure locations.

The Travelers, which became title sponsor in 2007, has assembled its most star-studded field ever, with nine of the top 10 players in the world and 15 of the top 20 committed to compete for the $7.4 million purse, with $1.332 million and 500 FedEx Cup points going to the winner. Add to that list names like Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia and Watson and it's easy to make the case this is the best roster of players the event has ever had.

Though the normal multitudes, hundreds of thousands of fans, will not be there, it will build the organizers' relationships, giving them a chance to show off the quality of the course and make such impressive fields an annual thing, when the Travelers reassumes its place the week after the U.S. Open in 2021.

"We've always tried to take the long-term approach," Grube said. "If a guy couldn't come this year, maybe he comes next year. What's cool is, every one of these guys have been with us before, just not all together at once. These relationships we have are culminating. These players like the course, they know who we are and what we stand for. Reminding the guys how much they love the golf course is going to be good for us in the long run."

PROTOCOLS: PLAYING THROUGH

Generally, the first event, the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, went off without serious problems, players on board with the safety protocols and becoming comfortable with them. Watson said he went into the locker room only once, to get his visors on the first day of the tournament.

"You couldn't ask for a better week when it comes to policies in place," Watson told reporters in Fort Worth. "What we're trying to do, create a safe environment for everyone, not just golfers but caddies, volunteers, the staff onsite, PGA Tour staff. I don't think you can do any better that way."

There were no positives among the 487 tests conducted at the start of the tournament, a relief to PGA Tour and tournament officials. Commissioner Jay Monahan, a Trinity College graduate, is sharing the tour's experiences with other professional leagues that are planning, or hoping, to start up soon.

"I think we have a responsibility on our shoulders to really make sure we do everything," said Collin Morikawa, who lost to Daniel Berger in a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge. "Follow the rules, follow the guidelines. For the most part I think we all did pretty well."

The tour restart hits its first glitch on Friday when veteran pro Nick Watney tested positive after playing the first round Thursday in Hilton Head with Vaughn Taylor and Luke List. Watney immediately withdrew and Yahoo Sports reported Saturday that 11 additional tests on those who had come in contact with Watney-including Taylor and List-all came back negative. Taylor and List, who missed the cut in South Carolina, are committed to play in the Travelers.

Grube is working through contingencies, the most important being what to do if there is a positive test, and how to proceed if a key person in the process is not able to perform. In mid-May, the tour issued a 37-page memorandum of health and safety protocols, limiting the number of people on the course, access to clubhouses, touching of equipment, and designating hotels. The guidelines that have become familiar in keeping courses open during the pandemic, only on a larger scale.

"(Michael Tothe) said something that was really cool," Grube said. "He said the guys and the caddies are so happy to be part of this return to sport, they're in such good moods, they're willing to do anything. They're very compliant and appreciative of what you're trying to do."

"It's great that the bubble stayed a bubble," Spieth said following the Charles Schwab Challenge, "and now we've got to travel with it."

PAR FOR THE TPC COURSE

Single-rider carts, no ball-washers, no touching the pin, no bunker rakes, the "E-Z Lyft" touchless ball retrieval system-these things have become routine at golf courses. "Everything (the tour requires) is accomplishable," said Jeff Reich, the TPC's director of golf course maintenance operations. He has been working around pandemic-related protocols for months, keeping his staff socially distanced, in addition to the unique challenge brought by each year's weather.

"We had a late spring, so it was cooler," Reich said. "We had a nonexistent winter here in the Northeast. Those cooler temperatures didn't warm up until early May, so that provided some challenges in growing turf, filling in some areas. As of right now, it's probably in some of the best shape I've seen the golf course. We've done some things that have allowed us to be able to prep the course in such a fashion that's its going to look extremely good on TV and provide a great surface for the players."

Reich will be able to have his usual complement of staffers to keep the par-70, 6,841-yard course in shape. With no spectators and fewer structures up for the media, there are areas exposed that usually are not.

"It just provided an opportunity to grow some more grass," Reich said, "which I love to do."

THE TELECAST

The telecast presents challenges, not only in presenting energy without fans on the course, but working with limited personnel and many key people working remotely.

Jim Nantz, the lead broadcaster, is working on site, from a tower at the 18th green.

"I felt a lot more comfortable about being there in person versus, say, being in my garage in Cleveland or from my home in Pebble Beach," Nantz said in a conference call earlier this month. "I'm not that technically savvy and I was always fearful my 4-year-old son would trip over an electrical cord and I'd be knocked off the air and wouldn't know how to get myself back on the air. It makes a lot more sense too, just the little nuances of the broadcast. Coming out of breaks and having a sense of the atmosphere. I just think it's a lot easier to pull off a solid broadcast with the anchor being there in person."

CBS is experimenting with ways to make the telecasts more entertaining, bring out players' personalities. Celebrities were enlisted to introduce players at the first tee, for instance. The first presentation was well received by an audience yearning for live sports; the final round in Fort Worth averaged 3.09 million viewers, peaking at 3.88 million, the highest viewership for that tournament in 16 years, and a 50% increase over 2019.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the game, for the PGA Tour," Nantz said. "They have a chance to go before a sports-starved nation, and have a chance to create a wider fan base than it's ever had before. How do you do that? A lot of it has to be personality-driven. We need to hear from the players. It's something that I think is not obtrusive. It's an opportunity for the players to invest in their own game."

Grube watched the Schwab telecast from an operational point of view.

"I started looking at what the camera picks up," he said. "Where we put scoreboards, where you're telling carts to drive, where television cables are laid, what kind of back-of-house things are going to come into play that never have before. Where they put signage. Then all of a sudden, I got caught up in the drama, 'This is a really good golf tournament.'"

THE EXPERIENCE

Playing without fans felt weird to players in Fort Worth. For those used to feeding off the huge crowds in Cromwell, it figures to be a bigger adjustment.

"It was crazy different," Morikawa said. "I think fans bring so much of an energy, so much more excitement to the game, and that's why we love it."

"It makes it weird, I guess," said Watson, one of the Travelers' fan favorites, "because even when I made a couple putts, you just don't even wave, you don't even high-five. It's just a weird feeling, which we all love trying to challenge ourselves under pressure in front of the fans, and not having that makes it a little weird. I'll call myself an athlete, we know we're playing for fans on TV, but man, it's just the roars, the electricity. Even if you're playing terrible, to hear other roars, it gets you excited, so that's what we miss."

The PGA Tour hopes to bring fans back onto the course at the Memorial in Ohio in mid-July. In the meantime, the tour goes on, and the Travelers, which has raised more than $42 million for local charities through the decades, with focus shifting to coronavirus-relief this year, adapts and endures to this new normal.

"I'm very proud to be part of a community that was able to do this," Grube said, "and a title sponsor that was committed to figuring this out, the right way, the safe way, to have a state and a town of Cromwell that was behind us. We as a community and we as a state should be very proud of what we can do when we come together and say, 'Okay, this is one of the most abnormal situations we've seen in professional sports, but can we do this in the right way?' Hopefully, we will be a good example of how to do that."

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