Never in its 70-year history has the LPGA had such a lengthy off-season. And this one came in-season. Nearly six months after the COVID-19 global pandemic shut down the Tour and made masks, hand washing and social distancing routine, LPGA Tour players will tee it up July 31 at the Drive On Championship, the first of consecutive events in Toledo, Ohio.
The improvised tournament at the Inverness Club – yet another example of innovation in response to necessity – will offer a $1 million purse for 144 players, the first opportunity to cash a check for most since the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open ended Feb. 16 and the 2020 season was placed on hold after four events.
The week after the Drive On Championship, 156 players will compete for $2 million in the Marathon Classic presented by Dana at Highland Meadows GC in Sylvania. The tournaments are the fruits of months of coordination with other tours and the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Competition-starved fans can watch both on Golf Channel.
“As we return to golf on the LPGA Tour, we want everyone - players, caddies, staff, partners - to feel safe in the environment we're creating and managing,” says LPGA Vice President and Executive Director of the Drive On Championship Dennis Baggett. “We’ve worked to create separate and exclusive access points for our ‘bubble pool’ (players/caddies/staff) and for the Inverness membership and staff.”
The 54-hole Drive On Championship will be conducted without spectators. Golf returns to Ohio after an extremely diligent process.
“We formed a task force three months ago with the Memorial Tournament on the PGA Tour (Dublin July 16-19), Bridgestone Senior Players (Akron Aug. 13-16) and Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour (Aug. 20-23) and worked with the governor’s office,” said Judd Silverman, tournament director of the Marathon Classic.
“All the tours were very helpful in the protocols put forward,” Silverman said. “It’s been a long and tedious process, but we are grateful to the governor for the opportunity to stage this tournament.”
The introduction of the new normal comes at the Drive On Championship, where the LPGA has worked with Promedica, one of the nation’s top hospital groups, based in Toledo, on safety procedures.
“We will have an off-site testing center for all players, caddies and staff on Monday and Tuesday of tournament week,” says Baggett. “Starting Wednesday morning, this ‘bubble pool’ will have a separate entrance to Inverness Club where LPGA staff will confirm a negative test result and then process all arrivals through a temperature screening.”
Once granted access, personnel will get a wristband, which will change every day. If anyone feels ill or demonstrates symptoms, Promedica will quarantine them and process rapid re-testing. There will also be a separate area inside the clubhouse for players/caddies/staff which will be mainly used in case of inclement weather.
The Marathon Classic will provide the first implementation of procedures to allow spectators. The Marathon usually draws up to 4,000 a day.
“The players, caddies and staff will all be tested and they along with spectators and volunteers will be thermal scanned every day,” Silverman says. “We are asking everyone to wear a mask and we will provide masks for those who don’t bring one.”
There will be handwashing stations throughout the property and no bleachers, according to Silverman.
“One of the key things the governor made clear to us is social distancing,” Silverman said. “He’s a sports fan and wanted us to come up with a plan that would work. We will actively promote social distancing, using the slogan: Be Smart, Stand Apart. We want people to be able to walk around for four hours and not touch anything.”
Toledo has been a stop on the LPGA Tour for 36 years. Among it places in history are a record six-way playoff in 1999, won by Se Ri Pak. In 2007, Pak again won, becoming only the fourth LPGA player to win the same event five times. It is a fitting town to host the return of the Tour.
“We are thrilled it worked out for the LPGA to be in Toledo for two weeks,” Silverman said. “I want to commended the Inverness Club and its members for being so accommodating. The Drive On Championship will be a great preview for the Solheim Cup.”
That team competition between the United States and Europe is next year. Meanwhile, on July 31, this year resumes. A lot will be different, but this remains: The best women golfers will be going head to head. It’s what we’ve been waiting six months to happen.