While many eyes turned to the PGA Tour’s first tournament in three months, another significant moment was taking place at historic Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The American Junior Golf Association hosted 75 junior male golfers last week, initiating a robust tournament schedule as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While the event had a strong field and a deserving winner in University of North Carolina-bound David Ford, the real story centered around intricate safety protocols in place. After extensive planning alongside golf’s governing bodies and top professional tours, the AJGA implemented measures that could become a playbook for other amateur events.
“We’ve had different organizations call us up to ask exactly what we are doing and we are glad to share our guidelines with them,” said AJGA executive director Stephen Hamblin. “I think as a golf community, that’s something we should all be doing.”
Those guidelines are painstaking and, in many ways, go beyond what viewers watched at the Charles Schwab Challenge on television this past weekend.
There were of course the steps all of us are more than familiar with at this point – staff members wore masks, ample hand sanitizer was available to all, temperatures were taken and social distancing was emphasized throughout the property. But those efforts are just the foundation for what is an aggressive and evolving program.
Players were allowed to arrive just 70 minutes before their tee times, and a two-tee start was eliminated in order to prevent an influx of juniors arriving simultaneously. Flagsticks remained untouched and featured a contraption that allowed players to retrieve their ball without reaching into the hole. Bunker rakes were removed and players used a preferred-lies system. Bottled water was sanitized and distributed by a volunteer wearing mask and gloves, while lunches came boxed.
“We needed to share our protocols with local government, and basically if you follow the procedures you are fine. We go beyond what most of them are requiring."
Scoring also looked different. Players used an app on their smartphones to record scores and then verbally confirmed them without signing a piece of paper.
The protocols, which you can read more about here, were so thorough that some parents thought they may have been too restrictive. Todd Van Paris, father of Jackson Van Paris, praised the AJGA’s overall efforts but wondered whether some areas could be relaxed.
“With the army of volunteers the AJGA has, it would make sense if they could have someone raking bunkers on each hole so the kids don’t have to place it,” Van Paris said. “And we know the scoring will improve as everyone gets used to it, but it’s awkward for players to confirm their scores verbally.”
Hamblin admitted that tournament golf will continue to evolve. The AJGA is communicating with governing bodies of cities across the country, asking them to sign off on safety measures four weeks before each event so travel arrangements can be made. If the coronavirus suddenly worsens in a particular area, it remains possible that a tournament might not be played because local officials will not allow it.
However, the AJGA’s protocols are largely more comprehensive and protective than local officials mandate. So there is optimism that events can be played and modifications can be reduced in time.
“We needed to share our protocols with local government, and basically if you follow the procedures you are fine,” Hamblin said. “We go beyond what most of them are requiring. How long we will not have rakes in the bunkers or not be touching flagsticks is something we’ll evaluate as we go.
“But even within some counties, the rules are different. There will be some venues that back out at the last minute … we know that is going to happen. We’re hopeful for 102 events, but we realize it may not be perfect.”
At the first tournament at Sedgefield, players deemed some guidelines slightly inconvenient but also fully understandable. More than anything, the juniors just wanted to play tournament golf against elite competition no matter what form the event took.
Ford, who claimed his first AJGA invitational victory with two birdies on his final four holes, said he had been keeping his game sharp in anticipation for the restart.
“I’ve been able to play nothing but golf the last two, three months,” said Ford, who held off the top-ranked junior in the country, Maxwell Maldovian. “I couldn’t hang out with friends and there weren’t many places open besides the course, so golf was pretty much all I was doing. I was playing 36 holes a day for the few weeks leading up to the event.”
He echoed statements by many players interviewed on-site by the AJGA, saying the event ran “beautifully” and no stone was left unturned. He lamented not being able to shake hands with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time, but said there still were opportunities to talk with them while social distancing was in effect.
“They did a really good job of getting player input on things like how to deal with the flagstick,” Ford said. “They had a full staff there, so lots of hands on deck helping out wherever they could, which we all appreciate.”
The next event on the AJGA calendar is the Insperity Invitational/Patrick Reed AJGA Junior Championship, June 22-25 outside Houston, Texas. How the protocol progresses will be a story to watch for the rest of 2020 – not just for players and parents, but for countless tournament organizers across the country who may try to duplicate many of the AJGA’s safety efforts.
Top: AJGA Invitational at Sedgefield winner David Ford