Q&A: PGA golfer Troy Merritt on golf returning as one of the first live sports on television
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Sports are slowly but surely starting to creep back into our lives. In Europe, the top soccer leagues have returned in Germany, England, Italy, and Spain, each of these countries having successfully flattened the rate of COVID-19 infections. But in the U.S., the story is a bit different as the coronavirus pandemic surges in some Southern and West Coast states.
That leaves the future of sports still uncertain on this side of the pond. The NBA is scheduled to resume at Walt Disney World on July 31, but COVID-19 cases are currently spiking in Florida. The NHL is still working through its return plan. MLB owners voted on a 60-game return plan earlier this week but still have hurdles to clear before that becomes official. Even the NFL, set to return in the fall, isn’t guaranteed to start on time.
One of the few sports that is successfully back in action? Golf. The PGA Tour resumed on June 11 with the Colonial National Invitation Tournament in Fort Worth. As with similar reopening measures across the country, the PGA has implemented strict social distancing procedures. To get a sense of how the return is going and what it’s like being one of the few sports on television in a nation starved of athletics, Fortune spoke with PGA Tour golfer Troy Merritt.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Fortune: Golf made its return this week after a three-month hiatus. It’s one of the few sports on live television right now. How have you found the experience so far, in one of the few sports available to consumers at the moment?
Troy Merritt: The nice thing about playing golf, unfortunately, is when you take out the fan aspect of it, we can social distance pretty well. We play on a pretty big ballpark week in and week out. We played the Colonial [National Invitation Tournament] last week and the Heritage Classic in Hilton Head this week. They’re smaller and tighter venues, so we’ve had to be reminded by tour officials time and time again to social distance, just because there’s not as much space. Once we get to bigger courses, it’s not going to be as much of a problem. The only thing we’re missing is that fan interaction—the clapping, the cheers, the boos, sometimes the heckling.
A lot of the guys kind of social distance most weeks anyways. We keep to ourselves. We’re not out partying all the time; we grab-and-go dinner. We spend a lot of time at the course hotel. So in that aspect, it’s not that much different. We’re not supposed to be out at restaurants right now; we just got reminded again this morning. The only thing really different is that we have a lot of hand sanitizer on the golf course right now and a couple restrictions where you can and can’t go. And then that nasal swab week in, week out is something that is not overly desirable.
In addition to the nasal swab for COVID-19 testing, there are some other safety procedures that you have to adhere to: fever screenings on a daily basis, filling out tracing questionnaires, and so on. Does it provide a sense of security and relief or do you view it as more of an errand or task you have to deal with?
We get a text message every morning regarding our health. It’s two questions, you fill them out and submit them. If there are any issues, [the PGA is] right on top of it. If [a player] had a cough, they’re getting a call within seconds. The temperature screening is different but very noninvasive. It doesn’t take any of your time at all, you’re just walking through.
The tour has done a fantastic job. They’ve had to go over the top to make sure we can play. You have to give them credit for that. And you have to give credit to the players and caddies. For the most part, we’re doing our best. We don’t want to get shut down. This is our livelihood, how we make a living, and we don’t want that taken away. We’re learning as we go. We’ll try to improve each and every week. We want to give folks back home something to watch, something to cheer for. I know they’ve been missing that for the past couple of months. Whatever we can do to help others out, I think that’s a pretty small ask.
We want to give folks back home something to watch, something to cheer for.Troy Merritt
Does it feel as if there’s heightened attention around the tournament and sport right now, since golf is one of the few live sports on television? Without many other sports to compete with at the moment, do you find there’s more interest and intrigue generated?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if we’ve brought in people who don’t normally watch golf. But I know that the average golf fan to the absolute fanatic have been very happy to see the PGA Tour back—especially with the quality of the [competitive] fields the first two weeks. We usually don’t see the big names in these two events as much: To have each of the top five players for both weeks, to have 15 of the top 20 players in the world playing here in Hilton Head, which is usually bypassed by the big names because it’s the week after the Masters, the fans are loving it. I know my friends back home are absolutely loving watching golf on live TV, along with my family. It’s been nice to be able to provide that product, and we just want to make sure we take care of business so that we don’t have people saying, “I told you so. You guys shouldn’t have been opening back up so soon.”
As an athlete in general, what are your thoughts on the role fans and spectators play? How do you see the world of sports operating potentially for another year at least—maybe more—without the availability of fans?
Golf is a little bit different. It was jokingly said that the only big difference would be some of the marquee groups [of fans]. Those guys that hit errant shots are going to end up in bad spots instead of accidentally hitting spectators and ending up back in the fairway maybe. We don’t hear the roars coming down the stretch when a guy makes birdie to get into contention or take the lead, so you really don’t know what’s going on in that respect. But we’re doing just fine.
With regard to other sports, it’s going to be vastly different—we’re seeing it with soccer now. Basketball is going to be different when it starts back up. Hockey will be different. And football, I think, will have the biggest impact. You want to talk about a crazy game in the States? Football is it. Whether or not they play, whether or not they play with fans or a limited number of fans, it’s going to impact the game a little bit. The guys will love being back out there, I imagine, but to play with limited to no fans is something they’re really going to have to adjust to.
Are there any silver linings to navigating the strict coronavirus measures in place?
The nice part about our job is that not only are we professional golfers, but we’re professional travelers. We’re used to taking care of ourselves while we’re in airports and restaurants: washing our hands, staying away from other people, showering when we get to our destination and getting the airplane and airport germs off of us. I will say I’ve used hand sanitizer a lot more these past two weeks than I ever have in my life. You’re just trying to do these little things. They’re not asking us to use it at every hole, but when you see the stations every four to five holes you wipe your hands off. You do catch yourself thinking, “Maybe in years past I didn’t wash my hands quite enough. Maybe in the past I didn’t take care of myself like I should have.” You’re just trying to find different ways to keep yourself healthy and clean, and that’s the learning curve we’re all going through these days.