The only thing certain about 2020 has been uncertainty. When the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions ended Jan. 20, golf’s global tour could never have imagined it would be shelved by a global pandemic. But with careful planning, corporate cooperation and player participation, the LPGA is set to return with the Drive On Championship beginning July 31.
When the first shot is struck in that 54-hole event and 144 players compete for a $1 million purse ponied up in part by sponsors whose events were canceled by the pandemic, and Aon, whose $1 million risk/reward challenge prize will be used to help fund the rest of the season, it will mark the resumption of the 70th birthday party for the oldest women’s professional sports organization. And the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, is a perfect place for the return of the Tour.
The Donald Ross gem, site of next year’s Solheim Cup, has been host of the U.S. Open four times and the PGA Championship twice. And Toledo, which has deep roots on the LPGA, will be the site of the Marathon Classic the following week.
Granted, things will look different. There will be no spectators or pro-am at either the Drive On Championship or the Marathon Classic. And those in the “bubble” – players, caddies, staff – will undergo testing for COVID-19 and maintain social distancing as safety becomes the top priority.
But what will be familiar is the quality of the competition.
Among those in the field at the Drive On Championship are Rolex Rankings No. 2 Nelly Korda, No. 5 Danielle Kang, No. 8 Minjee Lee, No. 9 Lexi Thompson, No. 15 Carlota Ciganda, No. 16 Jessica Korda and No. 19 Lizette Salas. Also at Inverness are three of the four winners in 2020 – Lopez (Diamond Resorts TOC), Madelene Sagstrom (Gainbridge at Boca Rio) and Hee Young Park (ISPS Handa Vic Open).
After the Drive On Championship and the Marathon Classic, players and caddies will take a private charter from Detroit to Scotland for the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open and the AIG Women’s British Open. They then return to the U.S. by charter for the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G.
“We're excited about getting back and playing,” says Commissioner Mike Whan. “We've waited long enough. We've got plenty of athletes that are itching to compete. I know we probably have athletes, too, that aren't itching as much to complete and I've encouraged them all to do whatever they feel is right to themselves.”
Key to creating a comfort zone for players are some LPGA corporate partners. Cambia Health Solutions is the Official Mask Partner; Global Rescue is the Official Travel Risk and Crisis Management Provider while NEC, the Official Technology Partner, will provide technology solutions to enable the LPGA to feel confident in the safety of its back-to-play protocols.
Joining these three existing LPGA partners are two newcomers: Theraworx Protect as the Official Hygiene Solutions Provider while WHOOP, the Official Fitness Wearable Provider, provides its WHOOP Strap 3.0 to players, caddies and staff for self-monitoring that can detect elevated respiratory rates that may indicate COVID-19 before the onset of symptoms.
Also supplying critical personal protective equipment (PPE) are Meijer, title sponsor of the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give, and Kimberly Clark.
“We’re really excited that in trying times, we've got partners that not only stick with us to play events and to figure out how to, but to really help us stay safe,” says Whan. “I've never felt like we had to do this on our own.”
Returning the Tour to a competitive schedule has been an exhaustive and exhausting process. The LPGA has pursued every avenue to ensure safety, consulting with medical experts, government planners and other sports organizations.
“It's been a lot of work to finalize our back-to-play protocols and everything in this time is rooted in health and safety, first and foremost,” says LPGA Tour Chief Tour Operations Officer Heather Daly-Donofrio.
“We have our own medical director, Dr. Bruce Thomas.,” says Daly-Donofrio. “We have consulted extensively with Dr. Andrew Murray for events over in Scotland; the CDC; the Federal Coronavirus Task Force and virtually every other professional sport league here in the U.S. We've got what we feel is a really strong plan that focuses on testing.”
Every step of the way, LPGA members have been involved in the planning process through weekly conference calls in which player representatives offer input to Tour officials.
“Have we answered all the questions?” asks Pernilla Lindberg, one of the six player-directors involved in the planning process for the return. “Have we pleased everyone? No, probably not. But as a player, I feel as comfortable as I can feel heading back out on Tour in a couple of weeks.”
As with everything in this new age of uncertainty, plans are made with the knowledge that they could change.
“I fully believe we'll lose another event or two or three along the way,” Whan says about the schedule for the rest of the season. “I couldn't really tell you which ones, but it would be probable naïve of me to think we are just going to roll through our season and roll through different countries and be able to play exactly as we have slated but I'm excited about what we have.”
There is every reason to be excited. Nearly a half-year after the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open ended on Feb. 16 – 166 days to be exact – the LPGA tees it up again on July 31. It’s great to have the band back together – even if it’s six feet apart.
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