Is Harbour Town still viable as a PGA Tour venue?

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Despite the PGA Tour’s insistence that they have taken every precaution to ensure players are protected from COVID-19, Nick Watney tested positive on Friday at the RBC Heritage. While waiting for test results, he was allowed to mingle with other players on the practice range. So far, no one else has tested positive. This may be a one-off or it could escalate into a mini pandemic on the Tour. Other sports are still struggling with their COVID-19 protocols and when and how to re-open. Did the PGA Tour jump the gun on their re-start?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): I don’t think we can answer that question unless and until people who came into contact with Nick Watney begin to test positive… or unless an un-Watney-related number of cases develop in and around the Tour (staff, volunteers, etc.)   Obviously, we hope not.  But if it does develop, PLEASE let’s not start pointing fingers and blaming blame on Jay Monahan or anyone else at the Tour.  They’ve done everything they can to apply COVID protocols, while bringing the “product” back to entertain the public, and I give them credit for doing so.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): Until that test comes back negative, anyone, player or not should not be around other people outside their “circle of trust”. But everything I have read, while being outside, transferring the virus is VERY VERY small, like less than 1% even if somewhat close proximity. I also think there will just be risk in general, you can’t control where these players or their family are going to be in their off time/off weeks. Testing is certainly going to help, but it can only control so much stupidity (whether from a Tour players actions or lack thereof or not). I’m not sure the Tour has jumped the gun here yet, let’s see how the next few weeks go as players rotate in and out of the lineup week to week.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame member, PGA of Canada: Nothing about this pandemic makes sense and the rules keep changing. First, everything is OK, then it’s washing your hands, next came stay home and now it looks like masks are finally beginning to be mandatory. Given the amount of travel the players do the only way to prevent spreading the virus would be to hose them down with disinfectant before and after every round. It seems to me we have underestimated the dangers of this virus from the beginning and as we learn more and more about it, we are becoming more and more complacent. The virus is winning! It hasn’t even peaked yet and we are seeing new outbreaks. Why aren’t we far more serious about containing it?

Dave Kaplan, Freelance Writer (@davykap): I don’t think they jumped the gun. More like this is the new normal if you want to have competitive sports during COVID-19. A weakness was exposed in their current protocol, and I expect the PGA Tour to correct it going forward by not allowing players onsite until they have received their test results and clearance from the medical staff. Don’t kid yourself, though. This will not be the last PGA Tour player that tests positive for COVID. We can only hope that this was a one-off and that other positive tests will also be one-offs as well. Otherwise, the PGA Tour won’t have any choice but to shut down operations again.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I don’t think they jumped the gun, I just think some people aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as they should, and that’s a problem all across the US right now (and many other parts of the world).  Justin Thomas even commented that the restaurants were packed on Hilton Head Island and people weren’t generally respecting the social distancing recommendations, so it’s bound to impact the Tour Players or caddies or tournament staff at some point.  I hope it’s a one-off and they can keep the virus away from players and tour staff, I would hate to see them have to shut it down again.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: It’s a lot easier and makes more sense for golf than the other sports. Look at the US college football industry and how whole spring programs have had to shutter, same with some MLB spring headquarters. Golf’s doing a good job, so far. It’s doubtful the other major North American sports can do the same.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): We may look back in a few years and say this was one of the biggest blunders in sports history but so far, it doesn’t look that way. Team sports have a totally different dynamic than golf and it appears that the PGA Tour has carefully considered every contingency. Well, almost. The Watney incident highlighted a minor flaw and I’m sure steps will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen that way again. Overall, you have to be impressed with the way professional golf has rolled out this re-start.

Webb Simpson won the RBC Heritage on Sunday for his second victory of the season and joined Justin Thomas and Brendan Todd as the only two-time winners so far. In years past, when Tiger Woods was dominant, he would regularly win five or more events per season. The Tour seems to have more parity now and almost anyone can win any week. Do you like the wide-open possibility of the current Tour or would you prefer to see one or two dominant players?

Deeks: That’s an interesting question.  I appreciate the parity and the variety of winners, but at the same time, I’m more inclined to watch an event on TV if someone (or two) I know and like are in the mix on a Sunday afternoon.  If it’s Joe Schmo, Bill Bleau, and Guy Nono at the top, then I can’t be bothered. But if Rory and Rickie and Rosie are on the first page (or others like Spieth, Day, or a Canadian), then I’ll pay attention.  Parity is great for the game, but most of us like the recognizable faces, I think.

Loughry: I like watching dominant players dominate the field. One because its great to watch great players do just that, win multiple times and create some rivalries. It also let’s you root for the underdog who just might be the next dominant player. Just think to when Jack Nicklaus came on the scene. Arnie was in his prime, was the dominant player, until Jack bumped him. But they sure had some EPIC battles. That’s what makes it so interesting. But if (and I mean this with respect) relatively unknown household names are battling for titles each week, people will tune out, people generally like familiarity.

Schurman: I find the format of a 72-hole event every week kind of boring. I enjoy certain events like the majors and some because of the course like Pebble Beach but how many times can you write one of 3 or 4 different scenarios and just change the characters? I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, I think there is a place for 25 to 40 cities around the world to field their own team of 20 to 24 players and play a schedule of Ryder Cup type matches culminating in a play-off. It should consist of men and women and the pairings should be done by a ‘blind’ draw.

Kaplan: For legit golf fans, parity is the best scenario because the level of play is elevated across the board. Unfortunately, parity doesn’t captivate the interest of the casual fan or the general public in the same way that watching a superstar dominate does. All eyes are on golf right now as the only major North American sport currently on the go. As such, the Tour is in a unique position to entrench itself within the 18-35 demo, and the only way that’s going to happen is if one of golf’s A-list names starts playing like it on a weekly basis.

Rule:  Every sport needs a dominant player to add to the intrigue.  Golf is no different, and in fact may benefit from it more than other sports.  Nobody can argue that golf wasn’t at its peak with Tiger winning eight to ten times a year. Whether you love or hate the athlete who is dominating, it adds to the passion that fans have for the game.  I can’t wait to see another player get to double digit victories in a year, although it’s getting harder and harder in these days, with so much parity in the game.

Quinn: I get the feeling that when it comes to the Majors, the wide openness will close dramatically, but not just to a twosome or threesome. The talent in the top 10 is better than ever, and that’s a lot more interesting and exciting than having a ‘featured’ pairing every weekend.

Mumford: Sports are always best served by having heroes and villains. When Tiger was winning everything, it gave me someone to root against. Match play always pits a hero against an underdog, and you can cheer accordingly, but medal play is too wide open. Right now, it’s like watching a bucket of frogs. Occasionally, one jumps a little higher than the others but for the most part, there’s not much to distinguish them. I’d prefer a dominant player with all the tools and a cocky attitude to match.

Arnold Palmer won the Heritage Golf Classic 51 years ago with a score of 283 (-1). In 2020, the entire field of 75 players that made the cut, finished at -2 or better. Harbour Town is not a long course by today’s standards and this year’s winning score of -22 is a tournament record. With players routinely driving the ball more than 300 yards and lofting short irons into even the longest par 4’s, is Harbour Town still viable as a PGA Tour venue?

Deeks: I think the handwringing about consistently lower and lower scores is based on how it looks on paper. Most golf watchers would rather see a birdie fest and 340-yard drives, so they’re not concerned about it. Therefore, Harbour Town is probably just fine as it is, for the average fan.  Purists (read: old fuddy-duddies) like me, however, still believe in the notion that golf courses were meant to be played, not over-powered by bulked-up players with bulked-up balls and equipment.  It would be a travesty if officials felt that they had to lengthen courses like Harbour Town to 7,800-8,400 yards to accommodate the elites.  So, if we want to dial back the constantly lower scores, the best answer… sorry… is: dial back the golf ball for professional tournaments.  (Or, as Russell Oliver might say, “Bifurcation, baby!  Oh, yeah!!!!”)

Loughry: Keep the venue. Harbour Town is a great track, small greens and great waste areas, and although somewhat short, still provided a very crowded leaderboard. The goal is the same as it was back in Arnie’s days, get the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible. Whether that leads to a winning score of 283 or 262 doesn’t really matter, the tournament provided a great finish with some drama in Ancer needing birdie on the famous 18th hole to send it to a playoff.

Schurman: When the players are polled, they repeatedly list Harbour Town as one of their favourite courses. I’ve played it 5 times. It is gorgeous and requires a lot of maneuvering of the ball flight. But it is located on one of the flattest pieces of land anywhere. They do have pine straw but literally no rough. We also witnessed green speeds in the 10 to 10.5 range which simply cannot harness players of this calibre even though it is exactly what the average golfer can handle.  For the best players turning the ball both ways is a simple task until you ask them to factor in a few sidehill, downhill lies. I don’t understand how a course that is so one dimensional is rated so highly.

Kaplan: I think the issue this week was that the greens were constantly getting sprayed because it was so hot there (like it was here) and were playing more receptive than usual as a result. You give these guys receptive greens, they’re going to show you crazy low scores. Doesn’t matter the course. Harden those greens up and add some rough to that course next year and I promise you will see very different results.

Rule: I’m not a huge fan of Harbour Town because I think it’s too tight in spots.  When I played there years ago, I laid up on the right side of the fairway on 15, which should be perfect, but I was still blocked out by a tree from seeing the back-left pin.  But the great thing about the course is that it doesn’t favour the bombers, and you have to work your ball around the course.  If you look at the list of winners, it’s filled with ball strikers and great putters, as opposed to bombers.  The likes of Furyk, Kuchar, McDowell, Weekley are past champs and Luke Donald is a five-time runner up.  So, it levels the playing field more than other courses, and for that, it’s not obsolete at all.  The winning score this year was an anomaly given the calm conditions and soft greens.  The winner the past 4 years was between 9 and 13 under, which is respectable.

Quinn: The different date and the lack of wind had a lot to do with it. And champ Simpson is considered one of the best shotmakers on Tour. I think Harbor Town still works.

Mumford: Although scoring has gotten much better since Palmer’s win, Harbour Town is one of the few courses where the bunters still have a chance. Rather than lengthen it or cast it aside, I’d look for more courses like it. And maybe tighten them up even more so that accuracy is at least as important as distance. If someone can drive it long AND straight, that’s a huge advantage but just hitting bombs should not be rewarded to the extent that it is most weeks on Tour.

The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

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