Dustin Johnson left The Players Championship two months ago and didn’t play another round of golf until early last week, the start of a crash course for his return to playing before a television audience.
He also owed it to his partner, Rory McIlroy, to practice.
They play against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff on Sunday at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach in a charity skins game, the first live golf on television (2 p.m., Golf Channel) since the opening round of The Players Championship on March 12. The rest of that tournament was canceled the next day because of the coronavirus pandemic. The PGA Tour hasn’t played since.
“I figured I probably should play a little bit of golf before we tee it up here this Sunday,” Johnson said on a conference call Thursday. “But I’ll be ready. Don’t you worry.”
McIlroy has been playing some but not really working. He expects the work to start after the Sunday match, giving him three full weeks of hard practice to get ready for the PGA Tour’s return June 11 at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas.
But it’s more than golf that will be on display from Seminole, the Donald Ross design along the Atlantic Ocean that has hosted the game’s best over the years, just never on TV.
Along with raising $4 million or more for coronavirus relief efforts, this is as much about how golf will look when it returns for real.
The players will not have caddies and will carry their own bags. This was important to McIlroy, who didn’t like the alternative of millionaires zipping around in carts.
“I was a bit against that because I think if this is going to be the first time showcasing golf, trying to get out of this (coronavirus) era, I think it’s a good way to show you can socially distance by carrying your own bag and getting a bit of exercise," McIlroy said last week on the McKellar Golf Podcast. "Instead of sitting in a cart, jumping on and off, it’s a good image for the game seeing four tour pros out there carrying bags.”
McIlroy played Seminole before it closed two weeks ago for the summer, and he carried his bag. It was heavier than it needed to be.
“I probably had 18 clubs, two dozen balls, a sweater in there,” he said. “The weather looks good on Sunday. I’ll take out the umbrella and take as many balls as I need.”
Social distancing will be paramount.
“I think we have a big responsibility on ourselves to make sure that we practice all the guidelines that the PGA Tour is going to set in place,” Johnson said. “Obviously, everyone is going to be watching what we’re doing, so I think it’s very important for us to do it all correctly. We have a responsibility to ourselves and all the other players to stay safe and stay healthy.”
Andy Levinson, the tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration, said all four players have gone through a diagnostic PCR test for the virus, and there will be additional testing, temperature taking and health questionnaires at Seminole for everyone (a number likely to be around 50).
“It’s a great opportunity for us to implement similar procedures to what we’re going to be implementing when we return to competition on the PGA Tour and see how they work, albeit in a very much smaller manner,” Levinson said.
Golf in Palm Beach County opened a few weeks ago, and strict policies are in place: arrive 20 minutes before your tee time; flagsticks in the hole; no raking bunkers; and devices, such as foam noodles, that keep players from reaching into the bottom of the cup (typically 4 inches) to retrieve their balls.
With only four elite players, PGA Tour rules official Stephen Cox said Saturday the county is allowing the noodle to be removed and players can arrive an hour ahead of time.
The event is called “TaylorMade Driving Relief;” all four players have endorsement deals with TaylorMade. The quality of the golf might not be up to standard with players coming off such a long break.
Most realize that will be secondary. This is a chance to entertain, perhaps whet the appetite for golf’s return.
“I feel like there hasn’t been very many live sports,” Wolff said. “I know UFC has been back, but it’s been really tough. This coronavirus has really affected everyone’s lives, and everyone wants to just get back to a normal, going to work or watching sports or anything like that, and to be able to bring that to them while raising money for a great cause is what I really think is important. And I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The 18-hole match is designed to raise upward of $4 million toward coronavirus relief efforts.
UnitedHealth Group is pledging $3 million. McIlroy and Johnson’s “earnings” go to the American Nurses Foundation. Fowler and Wolff are playing for the CDC Foundation. Farmers Insurance is pledging $1 million toward birdies and eagles that will go to health care workers, and PGA Tour Charities will have an online donation program during the telecast.