Both Corey Conners and PGA Tour find success in unusual return to Texas

Corey Conners, of Canada, watches his shot on the ninth hole during the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge golf tournament at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, June 11, 2020. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Corey Conners was freaked out at first, he says, and closed his eyes so he wouldn’t see the near 20-centimetre instrument slip into his nose. A quick twist later, his on-site COVID-19 test was done — with just a few tears as evidence.

“It was very unpleasant,” says Conners with a laugh. “It wasn’t as painful as I thought, but it was just a funny feeling.”

Nothing, Conners says, was as weird as the nasal swab last week at the Charles Schwab Challenge – the first event back on the PGA Tour schedule after a 91-day break due to COVID-19.

No matter what role you played in last week’s return to golf, your routine was different. But overall, the week went as well as it could have.

“It was just like a normal week at Colonial Country Club: quiet, birdies and bogeys being made. It’s not anything anyone wanted but it was good to get back to golf,” says Michael Tothe, the tournament director of the Charles Schwab Challenge and a native of Georgetown, Ont. “Every element of the golf tournament was quiet.”

Tothe has been at the helm of the longtime PGA Tour stop for two years. He says once the event landed on having no fans, his team was able to easily get the procedures in place for the players. The week itself was about 40 percent less busy than normal – Tothe jokes his director of sales could have taken the week off – since there were no fans or corporate hospitality.

But the event, being the first back on the schedule in three months, also drew the strongest PGA Tour field of the season.

A mask was placed on a statue of Ben Hogan near the clubhouse during a practice round for the Charles Schwab Challenge golf tournament at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Tothe says it was “a big relief” no one before or during the tournament tested positive for COVID-19. Now his team has already pivoted to selling tickets and planning for 2021.

“It was a successful week,” says Tothe. “But a quiet week.”

The Tour now moves from Texas to South Carolina for the RBC Heritage.

The Heritage was originally taken off the schedule (it usually takes place right after the Masters in April) but was added back and will feature six Canadians, along with 114 former PGA Tour winners and eight of the top-10 golfers in the world.

Conners, Adam Hadwin, Roger Sloan, Michael Gligic, David Hearn, and Mackenzie Hughes (who announced on Instagram that he and his wife Jenna were expecting their second child later this year. “Well played, quarantine,” he wrote cheekily) will make up the Canadian contingent.

A Canadian who is not in the field but has been on site both in Texas and now in South Carolina is Stuart Love, a sports chiropractor from Victoria, B.C., who works with some of the top players in golf.

He says the Tour has implemented a rule that says both he and a golfer need to wear a mask when he provides treatment. There was a short debate about whether or not he and his colleagues could even be allowed to attend events, but they have become almost essential to a player’s routine.

Although he cannot travel on the chartered flight the PGA Tour is providing players and caddies, he is subject to the rigorous testing and must navigate some new procedures to be able to stay “inside the bubble.”

“Being preventative is the best stance,” he explains. “We’re still doing all the things we had before, there are just added precautions in place.”

Sergio Garcia, of Spain, walks off the seventh green during practice for the Charles Schwab Challenge golf tournament at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The new precautions around every corner didn’t seem to impact Conners’ play on the course, as he finished T19 — his best result on Tour in six events.

Conners says he had a “sour taste” in his mouth from a 1-over 71 Sunday after starting the day just three shots back of the lead. But Conners managed to carry over some good play from his home course in Florida — “There wasn’t a lot of money going out of my wallet, I’ll say that,” he jokes — to these tournament conditions.

“I know if I play my game I can get myself into contention regardless of who’s in the field,” says the one-time PGA Tour winner. “It wasn’t really normal at the start of the week and then again towards the weekend we’re used to having big crowds and feeding off the energy, but it was nice to get back into competition.”

This week’s event will be more of a change for Conners, who counts RBC as one of his corporate partners.

While he usually would play in a pro-am with clients of the Canadian bank or make appearances and sign autographs for the Canadians in the crowd, there will be none of that this week. It’s another routine that will be upended, and Conners confirms it will be “unusual.”

Mary DePaoli, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for RBC, admits the schedule change was bittersweet with the cancellation of the RBC Canadian Open, but she says her team is eager to proceed with this week’s event in South Carolina – despite all of the changes.

The tournament boasts many of the top golfers in the world and will have the strongest field, in terms of world ranking, in its history.

“While we can’t welcome our many dedicated fans onsite at Harbour Town Golf Links this year, we’re very proud to be part of the return of the game of golf,” says DePaoli. “Heading into this weekend, our feeling is one of excitement.”

Conners says he’s excited for everything this week as well – Harbour Town should reward his world-class ball-striking, and if can improve on the greens it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him near the top of the leaderboard again – but knows this is only the second week of what is a very different professional golf routine.

And he could do without that nose swab.

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