(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — With the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour returns this week from a forced three-month coronavirus hiatus. The pandemic has shut down most live sports since mid-March. NASCAR and UFC have returned in recent weeks without fans, and now the PGA Tour is set to join them.
This week’s event at Colonial Country Club was originally scheduled to take place three weeks ago. In the reconstituted schedule, it replaces the RBC Canadian Open this Thursday through Sunday. What was once a typical event on the golf calendar is now the biggest event on this week’s sports calendar. The PGA Tour will be the only game available on network television at a time when the viewing public is desperate for live sports.
This is a golden opportunity for the sport. But to rise to it, the PGA Tour and its broadcast partners must overcome the serious challenges of staging a public event in a time of social distancing. Golf, as a competition, is somewhat suited to this era of heightened risk from personal contact. Staging and broadcasting it, however, are sizable challenges even during normal times and gargantuan ones now.
To state the obvious, golf is played outside in wide-open spaces, where the risk of virus transmission is vastly reduced. Competing golfers don’t ever have to touch each other during the course of competition They don’t even touch the same equipment. Etiquette already dictates that players give each other space when taking shots. Keeping that distance between shots and at moments of interaction seems like an easy and natural next step.
The only real challenge during actual competition is how players and caddies interact. Usually, a caddie handles a player’s equipment and offers shot advice. How might that happen at a distance of six feet, especially with competing players and caddies within earshot?
The precautions will begin well before the competition. Participants may submit to testing before arriving at the tournament and are required to be tested on-site before the tournament begins. They must also answer a health questionnaire before the tournament. Temperature checks will precede each round. As the PGA Tour put it, “the test itself takes less than five minutes to administer, and test results are returned within several hours. Approximately 400 individuals are expected to be tested on-site each week.”
Every tournament extends well beyond the competition and the players playing in it. In this environment, so do the risks. Fans and family will not be attending the Charles Schwab, vastly reducing the number of people on site. Tournament staff, while present, will be reduced in number. (Removing attendees from the equation helps in this regard.) Scorers, rules officials and course marshals, for example, are still necessary, not to mention various player-support staff. Some ShotLink personnel will be on hand to collect shot data.
>>Stream: Charles Schwab Challenge
Masks and hand sanitizer will be readily available. Cleaning protocols will be stepped up. The number of people in any enclosed space will be closely monitored. Everyone on site will not be tested, however.
While fans will not be on hand, they will be watching in potentially large numbers. And that requires talent and crew to deliver the action. “This is a production unlike any golf production we’ve ever done at CBS,” says Sean McManus, Chairman, CBS Sports.
Weekly tournament coverage during the PGA Tour season is generally split, with the Golf Channel covering Thursday and Friday’s action and CBS Sports covering Saturday and Sunday’s action. For the Charles Schwab, the same announce and production team will work all four days.
The size of the on-site tournament production team will be reduced by more than half, with additional television mobile units added to the operation. “As an example, in our main production unit, we would normally have 22 people,” McManus points out. “We now have nine people in our A unit.”
Each truck has been reconfigured, adding space and dividers, to allow social distancing among the reduced staff. Many functions necessary to the broadcast will be conducted remotely. Editorial support, remote editing, replay devices, scoring graphics and video shading will all originate off-site in New York and Los Angeles.
On-air staff will be spread out on the course and across the country too. Jim Nantz will anchor the broadcast from the 18th tower at Colonial, as usual. But he will be alone this week, save for a robotic camera. Lead analyst Nick Faldo, who would normally be flanking Nantz, will play that role from the Golf Channel studios in Orlando, Florida, half a country away. Analysts Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo will join him there. On-course reporters Dottie Pepper and Mark Immelman will be on the ground at Colonial, but Amanda Balionis will report from home.
Other elements will be worked into the broadcast to enhance access to players in a socially distanced manner. One element will be called Inside The Ropes.” It will feature players — alone in a tent, save for a mic — answering questions about their round or their time away from the game. According to McManus, “It’s a way we can get hopefully every player making a comment that we can roll in later in the day.”
CBS Sports is also working with the PGA Tour to mic players during tournaments. Some have already agreed to allow that access, but many may not.
There are so many unknowns going into the Charles Schwab Challenge. Much will be figured out during this weekend’s broadcast and applied to the RBC Heritage next weekend. The process will repeat itself weekly all the way through the Memorial Tournament in mid-July. At that point, with spectators to be allowed at Muirfield Village for the first time since the Tour’s return, the playbook may have to be completely revamped.
Watch the Charles Schwab Challenge Saturday, June 13 and Sunday, June 14, 3:00 – 6:00 PM ET on CBS.