When the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour opened registration for its first event since the coronavirus outbreak began, tour officials immediately were swamped. Within five minutes, about 200 players registered for the May 9-10 tournament in Gainesville, Ga., hoping to finally get a chance for organized competition.
The tour, which stages about 35 tournaments a year for teenagers who aspire to play college golf, typically reserves around 84-90 spots for each event. Demand was so high in this instance, the number was pushed to 155.
“When we had an overwhelming number of players, I called the golf course and they said ‘Well, we’ll just shut it down (to public play) for the whole day,’ ” said Todd Thompson, executive director of the SJGT. “So in actuality, now we have two rounds of 78 players, one wave in the morning and one in the afternoon. There will be a crossover (with the two waves) where there are a larger number of kids there, but there will be some separation as well.”
Georgia has been among the most aggressive states in reopening businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this tournament is among the largest to be played in the country since the middle of March.
The young players desperately want to compete, so much so that Thompson said about 20-25 of them have already been meeting at a local course to play unofficial tournaments among themselves. The host course for this weekend’s official event – Chattahoochee Golf Club – long has been available for play and is ready to open the doors of its clubhouse two days ahead of schedule to accommodate the SJGT.
“We’re going to use common sense,” Thompson said. “We’re not going to do things that threaten people. We’ve relayed the message to parents and kids that we’re offering it and you can come out if you want to. … I’ve been playing golf in St. Simons (Island, Ga.) since this whole thing has been going on and a golf course is probably the safest environment we can be in. With this game, you can obviously stay away from everybody.”
“We’re taking a lot of precautions to do things right, so we feel pretty good about it.” – Stephen Hamblin, AJGA executive director
The optimism for such an endeavor comes during a murky time in the golf world.
The high school and college seasons have been canceled, while major professional circuits are hopeful – but not anywhere close to certain – about a summer restart. Junior golf, despite having fewer hurdles to overcome than other levels of the game, has also largely come to a standstill. Several popular events have been canceled for 2020, including both U.S. Junior Amateurs, the IMG Academy Junior World Golf Championships, the Pepsi Little People’s Golf Championships and the Scott Robertson Memorial Golf Tournament.
Junior Golf Scoreboard, a commonly used ranking site, has indefinitely frozen its rankings and is refusing to accept results for the month of May. The scoreboard announced in a blog post: “After much thought, given this national health emergency, it is clear that junior golf tournaments would be problematic on several levels.” It also says the situation will be reevaluated as more information becomes available.
The American Junior Golf Association, a prominent voice in the junior golf community, also has remained cautious. Stephen Hamblin, AJGA executive director, told Global Golf Post that the current target to return has been pushed back to June 22 as intense planning continues. Hamblin also said any decisions will be influenced by guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by individual counties, which is a primary reason the AJGA (for which GGP publisher Jim Nugent serves as president of the Board of Directors) is not playing now.
Among the long list of changes when the AJGA does return: All events will be limited to 78 players going off of one tee, no physical scorecards will be used, spectator levels will be closely monitored, a doctor will be on site, bottles of water will be sanitized before being given to players and preferred lies in bunkers will be used.
“We’re taking a lot of precautions to do things right, so we feel pretty good about it,” Hamblin said, while noting that it’s too early to be certain the June restart will happen. “We’ve been talking to the PGA Tour on a weekly basis, and to us it seems like the number one thing is avoiding large groups.
“If you can do that with a large field, then great. Maybe other tours are playing at courses with huge practice facilities and a huge clubhouse and can do some different things, but from our perspective, we are running five to seven tournaments per week and want to take all of the unknown out of play. We know what we can manage.”
Hamblin also expressed that a primary concern for junior golf will be limiting social interaction with kids who want to be around their friends.
“These are good buddies who want to hang out on the range and hang out on the putting green,” Hamblin said. “We’re going to have to space them. After the round, we may not open up the practice facility. We may just say, ‘You’ve scored, you’re done, go home.’ ”
It’s far from the only issue when a large number of young players converge on a single facility. Weather also could be a consideration. It’s customary for the SJGT to take players off the course 15 minutes prior to impending storms, having them wait at the clubhouse. This weekend’s forecast is clear, but Thompson has decided to double the allotted time and require all competitors to return to their cars instead of the clubhouse. That could be problematic if a player was dropped off at the course or otherwise does not have a car to wait in during the delay.
Maybe the largest and most complicated potential problem involves travel. The SJGT has 38 players from outside the state of Georgia coming to play this weekend, including competitors from Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. With it being a two-day event, the children and their parents will have to stay overnight. That brings up a new list of possible touchpoints where the coronavirus can spread – gas stations, hotels, restaurants and more.
While many organizations, parents and players are concerned about returning, others believe junior golf tournaments can be played safely now.
According to the National Golf Foundation, 79 percent of U.S. facilities will be open as of this weekend and that number could be more than 90 percent by the end of the month. Many of those courses never closed and even saw increased demand because golf has largely been championed as a healthy activity with social distancing being achievable.
In rare situations there have even been events contested, such as the Golden State Tour which completed a 75-person mini-tour event yesterday in Phoenix, Ariz. Also, the SJGT is not alone in junior golf being conducted. The Hurricane Junior Golf Tour returned this past weekend with a 102-player event in Braselton, Ga., at Château Élan Golf Club. According to a statement on the HJGT website, it plans to continue play throughout the country where golf is allowed. Gloves will be offered at the beginning of each round for players to use when handling rakes or flagsticks.
“We will be running select tournaments across the country wherever the courses are open and play is permitted by the states’ governors,” the statement reads.
And a small local circuit, the North Georgia Junior Golf Tour, has been holding events since April 18, albeit with fields of around 20-30 players. They expect larger fields during the summer.
Some have included the argument that young players are unlikely to be affected by the virus. According to CDC data, 52 deaths from COVID-19 have been in the 5-24 age group in the U.S. – still, the potential for a teenager to contract the virus and spread it to his parents is a major concern.
An Associated Press report on Wednesday evening signaled that Gainesville, Ga., the site of the SJGT event, is now among the hardest hit counties in the state. Per-capita infection rates in Gainesville’s Hall County are now in the top 10 percent of counties statewide. Governor Brian Kemp said that contract medical workers have been sent to the Gainesville area and a temporary medical pod is planned to be stationed there.
“They’re being stressed pretty hard up there at the moment,” Kemp told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.
Is the value of a golf tournament worth the risk?
It’s a question without a defined answer at this point. None of us knows when that answer will become clear.
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