HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | The bicycles and a summer week’s-worth of vacationers are still spinning around the edges of Harbour Town Golf Links, stopping to gaze at gators lounging by the lagoons, and gallery ropes have been strung around the perimeter of the golf course though no spectators were allowed for the RBC Heritage this week.
This is the second act in the second half of the PGA Tour’s pandemic-interrupted season, the tartan-splashed Heritage being played two months after it was originally scheduled.
If the curiosity of playing a Tour event without fans on site was addressed last week at the Charles Schwab Challenge, doing it again on the edge of Calibogue Sound still feels odd.
While it has sacrificed spectators, the PGA Tour did have a second straight week with zero positive results in its virus-testing protocol.
It’s tournament golf played in relative silence but for the occasional squawk from a seagull, the metallic tone of another golf ball hitting a steel pole at the back of the practice tee or a few polite golf claps from the locals perched on their back decks in houses sprinkled through the property.
This is an event that practically pulses to a spring break vibe in April, but not this week. While it has sacrificed spectators, the PGA Tour did have a second straight week with zero positive results in its virus-testing protocol.
When ESPN did a special earlier this week featuring the commissioners of six team sports talking about how they might put together a return to competition, it made a mistake by not including PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who has overseen a nearly seamless return.
Golf, by nature, is different than team sports but what the tour has done these first two weeks should be appreciated, not just because it brought tournament golf back but because it’s been done carefully and consistently.
Could something change?
Yes, but there is a reason Monahan was smiling this week when he stopped to chat with players and others.
The place doesn’t feel much different than it does when resort guests have run of the property, though tournament sponsor RBC has scattered some oversized golf bags in camera-friendly spots and the quality of the golf is substantially higher.
Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Jason Dufner are sharing a house that’s fewer than 100 steps to Harbour Town’s 10th tee. They have come and gone through the back door, no worry about fans stopping them for selfies or autographs on the way.
When the competition began Thursday, when players went back to long pants rather than shorts, they did their grinding like workers in an office, no one other than a few people stealing glimpses of the action.
It’s just different, still.
“When I turned the corner at (No.) 16, it was like ‘Holy cow,’ ” Davis Love III, a five-time Heritage winner, said of seeing no grandstands. “The other holes looked strange, but when you turn the corner on 16 and there’s beautiful oak trees and you see all the way to Daufuskie (Island), I’m like, ‘Wow, where are we?’ ”
We’re at the new way of life on the PGA Tour. The next three events will be played without spectators and more will be fan-free down the line, including the PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco in August. It’s beginning to feel like tournaments played with full galleries won’t happen until next year.
“At the end of the day, we’ve played more rounds without fans than with fans, going back to when all of us started playing golf,” Webb Simpson said. “So the last three months, I’ve had no fans. So I’ve tried to kind of approach it that way, that nothing’s different except it’s a tournament. But it is – you do think about it out there.”
As it was last week at Colonial, the Heritage has drawn a major championship-quality field including the top six in the world rankings. The rye grass familiar in April has transitioned to Bermuda across Harbour Town and the steady strum of conversation that typically hums along the 18th hole is now just a distant murmur from the nearby marina, but the allure of watching players navigate among the live oaks and waste areas is just as compelling now as in April.
When Tony Finau saw Love early in the week, he asked how a long hitter should play Harbour Town. Be careful pulling the driver, Love said. Finau is a quick learner, opening with 66.
Rory McIlroy hadn’t been to Harbour Town since he played here in 2009 and found it less claustrophobic than he recalled, the effect of a hurricane that blew through the area a couple of years ago. That didn’t help him Thursday when he shot a flat, 1-over-par 72.
Spieth shook off an early triple bogey and later made six straight birdies on his way to shooting 29 on his second nine, signing for a 66 that speaks to the sometimes inexplicable nature of a game that can give as suddenly as it takes.
How else can you explain Matthew NeSmith showing up on the leaderboard here Thursday?
If you’re not familiar with NeSmith, you’re not alone. But here’s the personal part: Last year, NeSmith brought his fiancée, Abigail Pate, to Harbour Town to ride around while he was playing during a vacation break.
He finished just before dark on the famous 18th hole and that’s when and where he asked Pate to marry him. They were married late last year and suddenly he finds himself in a happy spot in the middle of a pandemic.
The world keeps turning, even if spectators aren’t allowed.
Top photo by Ron Green Jr.
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