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VIRUS DIARY: Pro golf without fans in an eerie green expanse

Virus Outbreak Diary No Fans - AP Photo/Larry Lage

DETROIT (AP) — Birds. Generators. Golf carts.

At the opening round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic on Thursday, those were the sounds I heard when the eerie silence was broken.

The PGA Tour is putting the world’s best golfers on courses for the fourth time since it shut down March 12 as the pandemic descended. And while the players have gotten used to competing without fans, it was a jarring experience for me, a reporter covering a sporting event for the first time since Michigan State beat Ohio State nearly four months ago.

The first of many signs of the times came when I walked past a thermal camera monitor that showed my body temperature was at least 100.4 degrees. A hand-held device was then pointed at my head and showed I wasn’t in fact running hot.

I wasn’t in the clear yet, though, I had to affirm that I had no symptoms associated with COVID-19 and had not been in close contact with anyone diagnosed with it.

Upon entering the media center, I put on my mask — as requested in writing and with signage on the door. I was escorted to my own work space in a socially distanced room. On the white table, a bottle of hand sanitizer, wipes and a mask were waiting.

At the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic last year, more than 600 media credentials were issued. This year, about 40 people have access to the media center.

Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson, who received the PGA Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, suggested many years ago that it’s best to get out onto the course for at least nine holes during every round. That way, you can perhaps see something that TV cameras might miss.

In the past, getting an arm band from PGA Tour officials was required each day to get inside the ropes. These days, that’s not necessary: Reporters are asked to stay outside the ropes. Yet they have free rein to reach just about any vantage point because no more than several people are following any group.

Without fans, I can gaze across multiple fairways with a view unobstructed by spectators in the stands, along the ropes or in suites looming over the course.

On Thursday, the only fans I saw while walking five-plus miles at the Detroit Golf Club were perched on a platform in a nearby home’s backyard, just beyond the six-foot high, chain-link fence. When a player made a pivotal putt as first-round leader Doc Redman did to close with a 7-under 65, no one clapped.

Media members are not to supposed to cheer while covering a sporting event. Volunteers on the course stayed quiet, though one said they were not instructed to by tournament officials.

The sights and sounds — or lack of them — were simply unsettling. The roar of the crowd after an eagle or the collective sigh from fans after a missed putt has been something I’ve heard on golf courses for more than two decades as a sports writer.

At the PGA Tour’s Buick Open, watching fans, agape, standing in awe of being in Tiger Woods’ presence is something I’ll not soon forget. Now, for the first time, I covered a sporting event without fans. And I come away knowing for sure: Just like the golfers, the people who come to watch them are part of the show, too. I’ll never forget that, either.

___

Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Michigan-based AP sports writer Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage

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