Porath on pro golf’s restart: “A little bit is better than the full boat”

Golf journalist Brendan Porath joins editor Travis Hill to make sense of the PGA Tour's restart.
Outsider Inside the Ropes
Golf journalist Brendan Porath joins editor Travis Hill to make sense of the PGA Tour’s restart.

The flurry of golf news and subsequent spin has often been difficult to distill. That may never be more true than today, with the relative calm of the golf universe colliding with the realities of the wider world around it. In an effort to make sense of it all TGJ will periodically connect with an expert in the field and have a quick, high-level breakdown of a particular topic. We open with golf journalist Brendan Porath and TGJ Editor Travis Hill on how the PGA Tour is dealing with competition during the pandemic.

Listen above or read the full transcript below.

Today we are talking about the thing that everyone is talking about: COVID and the summer of quarantine. Today I’m very, very happy to be joined by Brendan Porath, host of the Shotgun Start podcast and golf writer extraordinaire. And he has a piece coming up for The Golfer’s Journal in a future issue. Very exciting. Welcome, Brendan.

Thank you for having me, Travis. Just to clarify, I’m not an expert in any field on any matter or subject. I don’t know what your initial thinking is for this series, but I just want to clarify that I’m not an expert.

Couldn’t have picked a better person! We’re off to a hot start [laughs]. The idea today is to talk about COVID as it relates to the PGA Tour. The Tour has been at it for a few weeks now. Enough time to where we can see some trends developing and see how this whole traveling circus is working. Just as a broad question to start, Brendan: We’re a few weeks in. Is it working for the Tour so far?

I think the short answer is yes, it is working. The way you phrased that there, “traveling circus,” I think is an apt description and I think it’s another reason why there was a lot of reticence when this actually started, or when this plan was first released. “This is a traveling circus, how is this going to work?” We’re dropped into markets where we’re taking tests out of those markets; in contrast to the NBA, you can’t create a bubble going from Texas to South Carolina to Connecticut to Detroit. It’s hard to create any kind of seal there.

I think it’s working based on—when we look at other sports trying to get back off the ground—the number of positive tests seems to be smaller on the PGA Tour. That may just be the nature of the sport, the nature of the protocols they put in place. I think they’ve adapted and strengthened some protocols, loosened in other areas. I still have a little hesitancy about the fact of whether we, as a functioning society, should be enjoying PGA Tour golf right now. But the answer is yes, I think it’s working. The product has been great, the actual golf has been great, but in terms of making it work in this pandemic time, I think you have to give them a passing grade.

That makes sense. I know, from everywhere, there was a lot of concern right off the bat, just on the “how?” How are they going to pull this off? And you’re right, they’ve had a few positive tests but nothing where it’s gone through a clubhouse or something where all of a sudden 10 guys have to pull out of an event.

I think there was the potential for that and maybe there was a lackadaisical attitude when it restarted, amazingly enough. Some of these PGA Tour players, people around the game, needed maybe a wake-up call, needed a couple positive tests to really understand the significance, the severity of the situation and the seriousness of it. I’m not sure. We didn’t see any tests this past week in Columbus— positives, I should say.

There’s all these conspiracy theorists who are doubting whether the PGA Tour is on the up-and-up about that, but I think if there were positives it would be hard to hide. It would get out. There’s too many players and caddies talking about it. I think they’re doing it well. They’re doing it right.

So success is just keeping this thing going, right? Just making sure we’re still making it week to week, essentially?

Yes, completely, and that you don’t appear callous to the larger societal issues going on right now from a PR perspective, and I think you saw that this week. In terms of the overall objectives, just keep this going. They intended, or thought they were going to put fans on the ground at Muirfield Village, and it just didn’t make sense. Why would you do that? Why would you sprinkle in one of that? And then you have the PGA Championship in August, which is already confirmed to not have fans.

Let’s just keep this thing going. Let’s block off fans, no fans for the rest of the summer, at least it sounds like. I think you’re starting to see a little bit is better than the full boat here. We don’t need fans. We’re up and playing, and let’s keep it going. I think that’s the primary objective. I think they’re succeeding and doing that right now.

Obviously, there’s the financial aspects of having no fans, which is a big deal. But from a viewership standpoint, just from me sitting on my couch watching on a Sunday, is [having no fans] really that big of a difference?

I don’t think so. I think it’s actually enhanced as a television product because there aren’t fans there. There’s maybe a few crescendo moments that we missed out on without having fans there. But I think for the golf viewer at home, you’re getting more of an ear to the ground. The broadcast is able to get you closer, to be able to get better audio. Now that you don’t have all the surrounding ambient noise obstructing that, I think you’re getting a lot more of that audio which really enhances the coverage.

We’re hearing recreational golf is exploding. We’re finding opportunity in this horrible moment in time. It’s not a good moment, but how do we seize opportunities out of this? Why don’t we figure out how to deal with it and create something good or something better out of a bad situation? The recreational game we’re hearing is exploding.

The PGA Tour is not that. The PGA Tour is, at heart, an entertainment product, and a large part of that entertainment comes via remote, via watching at home on TV. Of course, you can’t entertain on the ground. That’s more of a business operation, quite honestly, like corporate suites and things like that. [But] without fans there, I think the entertainment product has been greatly enhanced. The play has risen to the occasion of this return to golf so to speak, the young stars have showed up and played well, the fields have been loaded, there hasn’t been hesitation to jump back in. All of the big names are coming back and playing. We’re now getting Tiger back and, you know, Tiger picks and chooses when he wants to play, anyway.

I think for the fan watching at home, of course, there have been moments when you notice that no one’s there, no one’s around. But for us trying to understand the best in the world and what makes them, quite honestly, un-relatable, beyond just hitting the 360 yards, I think we’re getting a really good window into that. And not having fans there has enhanced that.

It’s interesting. You can see maybe the lessons that the tours and the broadcast partners can learn from this. Going forward, a year or so, they could look back and be like, “Whoa, look at these broadcasts and how much better they were. What can we do to bring fans in but also continue to make sure that our broadcasts are reaching this level?” You’re right, maybe there are opportunities in some of this darkness.

There’s always going to be a push and pull between the open ground operations and the remote audience that’s watching from home, because so much of the PGA Tour’s claim to fame, or mission statement, is about charity and raising money for charity. So much of that is done via these on-site activations and pro-ams which are not being run right now. Or corporate hospitality—all that stuff. A lot of people are taking a big hit here. Purses aren’t taking a hit, the players aren’t taking a hit, no money is coming out of their pockets. But some of these on-site operations are definitely getting popped in a significant way by not having fans or a really trimmed show. Whereas I think from home though, the PGA Tour should be encouraged.

Going forward then, they need to continue to be flexible in how they react to each situation with areas they go into where there’s a lot of outbreak, or not as much. The idea is, again, just keep it going. Because really, you’re right: Being able to be one of the few sports that’s being played has to be a boon for them. At least in the short-term and maybe in the long-term.

Yes, completely. Again, I think one objective, like you said, is just to keep it going, and we’re seeing them succeed in it. The second objective is not to [have a PR disaster]—I don’t think they looked great at the Players Championship week to be honest. I thought they looked a little too reactive instead of proactive, certainly compared to other sports. It was kind of a slapdash, piecemeal reaction. It was, “We’re not going to take away fans. No, we’re going to cancel it. Now we’re canceling the next four weeks.” They took a while to come around where a lot of those sports had already been. I think so far, they’ve been very proactive. The protocols they’ve put in place since they’ve come back have been solid.

Again, keeping it going is the objective. The other objective I think, is to avoid that PR black eye that I thought they got at the Players Championship. I think one way you get one of those is if you’re really taking tests out of markets where there are outbreaks or where they’re needed. What we’re hearing right now with a lot of these states, that testing is almost at capacity or the wait for results is significant now. You hit a breaking point there. I saw a doctor [on TV] last night about the MLS and their return. They thought it was just really inappropriate for the MLS to be taking tests away.

They’re getting their results in 12 to 24 hours, while people wherever this is happening, they’re having to wait seven days when otherwise it’s ineffective. I think that’s something the Tour—and I’m not suggesting they’ve done that or they’re at that point—but I think it’s something that they’re probably monitoring, concerned about, should be worried about. It’s how does it look if they’re dropping in on California, Ohio, or wherever they’re going, and testing this capacity. [They would be] taking tests out of those markets to play what is essentially a game?

It’s all a blank slate for people to figure out. People are just feeling around in the dark a lot and sports organizations clearly are too. For me, it’s interesting to watch this all happen in real-time. And you can see the decisions, like, “Okay, we have to figure this out now.” I’m impressed and I’m hopeful, I think, that we can get golf every week, because it really does make being trapped at the house a lot better [laughs].

Yes, absolutely. We get a lot of bad news today. I think the escapist thing can be a trope, and I don’t really buy into it, but there is a therapy in being able to put this on. Again, the tension in tightrope you’re walking is: What is the cost of having to put this on, in terms of taking [tests] out of the community or having an outbreak on your own Tour? I think they’ve done a good job. I was pretty skeptical and critical of them starting back up in June, and I will remain skeptical of the Tour, but I can’t do anything but really commend them on how the product has been good, and how they’ve been able to do this with minimal PR hit and minimal actual health risks so far.