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Williams: Phone interviews and high-school golf were sanity-saving in a year of contingency plans

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Covering golf, at every level and on every tour, in 2020 was unlike anything our writers have experienced. Through the end of the year, our staff is looking back on what will forever stand out from the season of COVID – a season during which every aspect of the game we love was impacted by a global pandemic. Read the whole series here.

I’ve spent eight months asking some version of the same question, and that’s the best way I know to sum up golf journalism in the year of COVID. Everyone has a story as we will ourselves toward 2021. For the most part, we all learned to adapt.

How did you go on despite a global pandemic? To hear that question answered is to get a lesson in the ingenuity behind a game that, at its heart, really needs no bells and whistles.

What the professional tours did to bring back golf was, without question, totally impressive. They threw their resources at getting their players back in the office, something especially important for players on the bottom rung – the ones who desperately needed the paycheck.

But I don’t cover golf at the professional level and thus, there was much more improvisation in my zip code, where the one-off junior and amateur events live.

For months, I’ve been going back to how Brian Fahey, Pinehurst’s director of tournament operations, broke this all down. In June, Fahey spoke of record entry numbers for the North & South Amateur and Women’s Amateur (that tells you something of demand). He also explained how the events would be boiled down in 2020. Summer amateur season encompasses golf, but also dinners, social outings and host housing.

At many events, those extras simply went away in the name of preserving the golf.

“This was our communication to the players: This is going to be golf almost in its purest form,” Fahey said in summing it up.

Six months later, at the end of a mind-blowing 101-event COVID season, AJGA Executive Director Stephen Hamblin detailed a massive undertaking in his organization that saw the creation of an 18-page COVID playbook that guided the AJGA in revamping nearly every procedure it takes to run a summer full of junior tournaments all over the country.

I logged fewer miles in 2020 than any year since I started writing about golf in 2009. I’ve also maybe never spent more time on the phone. My summer and fall were spent scouring scoreboards, hitting refresh, tracking down phone numbers and listening closely to verbal highlight reels of rounds I couldn’t see in person. While I miss watching live golf on my beat (a sincere thank you, USGA, for primetime Bandon broadcasts during the U.S. Amateur – a true gift), realizing just how many people live to talk amateur golf was comforting. I didn’t encounter one person who couldn’t find a few minutes to pick up the phone and talk.

John Yerger, co-chairman of the Sunnehanna Amateur, was one of the first people I called when trying to piece together what the summer amateur season was going to look like. Yerger & Co., carried on with a 100-man tournament, but I think he would have invited double or triple that number if it were possible.

“You can’t turn away a kid who has no place to play,” he said back in June.

In Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, Bruce Fleming, the tournament director of the Rice Planters Amateur, felt just as much responsibility to carry on with his slot on the summer calendar. Fleming labored over doing things right if he was going to do them at all.

“We have to do it in a manner that is appropriate and successful for what is going on.”

Ah, the unsung heroes of amateur golf.

I had some unexpected down time in 2020. Didn’t we all? I played more rounds – walking, bag on back – than I have since graduating college. My handicap is as low as it’s ever been.

In my little Florida beach town, our 27-hole muni only closed for a week in July. But in April, when the pro shop started closing early, word spread quickly. Shortly after 5 p.m., the parking lot was packed. But with the cart barn locked, it was all foot traffic from there. There was also no formal tee sheet, but shockingly, the first tee never descended into a free-for-all. The place was full of families – kids, moms, strollers. For the first time in a long time, dusk golf became my favorite way to end a day.

The phenomenon continued all the way to August. This marked my fourth season coaching the local high school girls golf team, and attendance at summer practices (or “play days,” as I call them) is generally sporadic. Not this year.

I averaged 15 players on days we hit the driving range and 10 or 12 on days we played nine holes. I once interviewed a First Tee director who described her New England facility as “crawling with kids.” I’ve always wanted to describe my home course that way, and I’m happy to say we achieved it this summer. Something tells me it wasn’t just us.

Of course, by the time our season rolled around, every one of the precious few matches the school district allowed us to play required at least three phone calls as COVID regulations changed, reversed and changed again. We wore our masks when we gathered, did everything in squads of no more than six and started every practice with temperature checks. Life went on.

We had to celebrate our senior night on an outdoor porch in the middle of a wicked thunderstorm, rethink the way we “broke it down” before and after matches and instead of a Homecoming pep rally, we were asked to film a hype video for our team. At the end of the season, a senior told me this was maybe her favorite year yet on the golf team. I had just been relieved to see it through but hearing that changed everything about the way I’ll look back on this COVID season.

I fought so hard to keep every high school match on the schedule because I heard so many veteran college coaches stress how important it was for their players to keep competing, keep grinding, keep getting tournament reps, even if college golf was canceled for the forseeable future.

At Golfweek, we scraped and strategized to help solve that problem. Our fall college series is usually one of my favorite parts of the year, but with so many teams unable to compete in the first half of the season, that series transformed into eight new individual events.

I was on-hand for half of them, and I’ll never forget how grateful those players were. I’ll also never forget how many questions we’d get from college coaches if players didn’t keep up with live-scoring input.

That tells you something about how college coaches spent the fall, too. Refresh, refresh, refresh.

As empty as my beat felt on March 13 – the day NCAA postseason was canceled for all spring sports, golf included – my golf life on Dec. 27 feels pretty full. I know I’ve said it a hundred times in 2020, but this is a year I’ll never forget.

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2020/12/27/amateur-golf-summer-2020-covid-high-school-golf/

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