How Golf’s European Tour Saved Its Season

It’s been a chaotic path to golf’s final stop on the European Tour.

At the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, which is sponsored by a logistics company, a player will be crowned Europe’s No. 1 golfer on Sunday. As the season ends, tour officials and players will have artfully navigated a constellation of constant shifts, changes, postponements and cancellations.

What began last November as a packed schedule of 46 tournaments across 31 countries came to a halt in March because of the pandemic. Professional golf was shut down, and it was unclear whether the season would resume or be even worth salvaging.

“It was so many months without playing,” said Adrián Otaegui of Spain, who ranks 28th in the Race to Dubai, which determines the best player. “We didn’t know when we were coming back. It was hard to practice, not knowing when we would resume.”

In June, tour officials regrouped in an attempt to restart the season.

Keith Pelley, the tour’s chief executive, warned players that tournaments would look “radically different,” suggesting that there would be a condensed schedule, with multiple tournaments in the same location.

In addition, sponsorship and prize money would be tight, he said. With the European Tour already struggling to draw players lured by the larger prize purses of the PGA Tour, the news dealt an additional blow: Players would also have to give up some of their perks.

“Many of the things you have become accustomed to, such as top-class players’ lounges or courtesy car services, will most likely assume a different appearance, if indeed they are present at all,” Pelley said in a memo.

He said the pandemic had become the biggest challenge of his life.

“The job changed overnight,” he said in a June teleconference. “Every single day you were getting knocked down, knocked down and knocked down, another tournament canceled, more revenue lost.”

It came down to prioritizing safety and making the tough decision to play without spectators, he said.

“There was no question whether or not the tour would close tournaments to spectators,” he said. “We’d love to have 30,000 fans, but I think it’s going to be very difficult.”

The tour resumed in July with the Austrian Open at the Diamond Country Club in Atzenbrugg near Vienna. By the end of the year, the tour managed to schedule 38 events in 18 countries.

Under the guidance of the tour’s medical advisory board, which included virologists, public health experts, immunologists and senior health leaders from FIFA, World Rugby and the ATP, the tour’s new health strategy was put in place.

Developed by Dr. Andrew Murray, the European Tour’s chief medical officer, the strategy included rapid on-site Covid-19 testing, daily symptom checks, social distancing and no-touch sanitizer stations.

At each tournament, players, caddies and staff members were required to go through a process that would be “some of the strictest screening and testing criteria on earth,” Murray said.

“The entire world has changed,” he said. “What we know is that we can put golf on safely, but there are a number of factors we need to consider.”

Tour organizers also created a bio-bubble system that requires players, caddies and the media to be only at the golf course and the hotel.

They are subject to screenings, including daily questionnaires, temperature readings, and nasal swab or saliva tests. Everyone is also being tested as they leave airplanes.

There were initial grumblings about lack of fans during tournaments or socializing after hours, but players adjusted.

“When you get here, you have to do a test and you have to do a temperature check,” said Joost Luiten of the Netherlands, who ranks 72nd in points. “It’s new and it’s different, but it’s just part of the new rules on tour, and you just have to accept it.

“We’ve all seen the different sporting events around the world that have been started, so I think you learn from each other, and I think golf is a sport where it’s quite easy to keep the distance between each other. There’s no spectators, so it’s as quiet as you can get it, and I think that’s the way to do it at the moment.”

Connor Syme of Scotland, who is 67th in points, said he welcomed the new restrictions. “It just feels more comfortable if you know for certain everyone is all right,” he said. “I feel safe. All the precautions the European Tour is taking make it possible to play. It feels good.”

Another big change was travel. Many players opted out of flying and instead drove to the tournaments.

Luiten drove with Maarten Bosch, his caddie, from the Netherlands to Austria. “It’s a bit further than normal,” Luiten wrote on his blog.

“Usually I drive if it’s to Paris, and I’ve done to Cologne in Germany, because that’s only a two-hour drive from Rotterdam,” Luiten said. “This is one where you would normally fly, but because it felt like a better idea to drive and we had some extra time anyway, so we thought why not. We just took it easy, so we did five hours on Sunday, stopping in Munich, and then did another four or five hours on Monday.”

Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, at 231 in the points race, said on Twitter that players should drive if possible. Richard Mansell of England, ranked at 185, took that to heart. “It kind of got me thinking — I’ve never done a road trip like that,” he said in a video released by the tour.

His fiancée’s father bought him a Ford Transit van, and Mansell drove with his caddie, Connor Winstanley.

They slept in the van and made the trip from Staffordshire, England, to Austria in two days. “We woke up fresh as a daisy and did the last stretch,” Mansell said.

“I thought it was going to be brutal, but the roads were brilliant. It was quite a beautiful drive to be honest. I really enjoyed it, but Connor probably got a bit sick of my singing.”

The tour stayed Covid-free until the summer swing in the United Kingdom, where Alex Levy of France tested positive in August and Jbe’ Kruger of South Africa in October.

David Howell, European Tour Tournament Committee chairman, admitted that this year was more crisis management than tour scheduling.

“I look back with amazement what we were able to do with what we had and very little collateral damage in terms of positive tests,” he said. “We’re lucky that we play a sport that is able to be played in a socially distant manner, but the logistics of getting an international sporting organization back up and running was just amazing.”

By the time the European Tour arrived in South Africa for the Joburg Open in November, Covid-19 cases had resurged worldwide, and event organizers and city officials increased precautionary measures for players, caddies, tournament staff and media.

In addition to undergoing Covid-19 screening and daily testing, players stayed at hotels within five miles of golf clubs and were permitted to travel only between the hotel and course.

Yet in spite of tight restrictions and the eerie absence of fans, players were happy to be playing again.

“We were one of the first sports to get back into competition,” Luiten said from the Joburg Open. “It was great to get back, but it’s a bit boring now. We miss the fun times. Also, at the moment there’s no atmosphere on the golf course without fans.”

Oliver Wilson of England, ranked at 212, called it better than the alternative.

“It’s a shame because we play better with fans,” he said. “But we’re very fortunate to be able to play — it was sheer excitement for players to get out of the house and back to competing. It’s hard not being able to socialize in the bubble. It’s tricky, but we have it good. We’re lucky.”

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