COVID-19 protocols key to holding Sentry TOC

Justin Thomas tees off on the Kapalua Plantation Course’s first hole during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Jan. 5, 2020. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Sentry Tournament of Champions is set to run Thursday through Sunday at the Kapalua Plantation Course, its originally scheduled date.

The journey to get there — with a field of 42 players that is as good or better than it ever has been in 23 events here — was anything but easy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been challenging, to be quite frank,” Sentry TOC Executive Director Alex Urban said Friday. “It’s been a difficult thing to plan because the atmosphere and the landscape has constantly changed, ever since March since the PGA Tour canceled a number of tournaments, and so did all sports for that period.”

Still, Urban is excited to get going with the world watching on The Golf Channel and NBC.

“All you have to do is look at our quality of play here, our quality of field,” Urban said.

The PGA Tour saw 11 events canceled during the pandemic, but was also the first major North American professional sport to return to action in June.

“As things returned and the PGA Tour returned to golf in that May-June time frame, the great thing about being a PGA Tour event is you get to learn some of those best practices,” Urban said. “You get the overarching support from a group that has worked so closely with so many different organizations, whether it’s the local governments where we play, to the state governments where we play, to the CDC and some of the national health organizations.

“We have a very capable team, led by Andy Levinson, who have taken a leading role within the sports landscape of returning to play. Those policies from that very first tournament to our event here have evolved.”

That is a fact that is not lost on Justin Thomas, the third-ranked player in the world and the defending champion here.

“Some would say that we put out a lot of risk becoming the first sport to come back,” Thomas said last month. “It might be selfish or a little biased to say this, but I think we set the precedent for the rest of professional sports to come back and show that it can be done and it can be done well.”

Thomas knows he has a responsibility to his fellow golfers who are here.

“A lot of it is more than the Tour — they do their part, but a lot of it is on us,” Thomas said. “We need to be making the correct decisions at home when we’re off to make sure that we’re staying safe. You have to be selfless, you can’t be selfish and go to a tournament or go to a place that could get you infected or get you sick and then spread that amongst the other players and potentially have an outbreak.”

Levinson, the PGA Tour senior vice president in charge of tournament administration, said the tour has used all of the angles available to be successful in its return-to-play plan.

“We have some certain advantages as a sport,” he said Thursday. “We’re played outdoors across a very large piece of property. We worked very closely with a lot of experts in the medical field with respect to infectious diseases and epidemiology and put a plan together that we felt could create a safe environment for not just our players, but all of our constituents — our caddies, our staff, our volunteers.”

Added Levinson: “We had a plan that was able to adapt — as we learned more about the virus we made changes to the plan. And we also were really fortunate to have a group of people who were really committed. They’ve been committed since Day 1 to focusing on their individual responsibilities to make this a sustained return.”

The event here will be limited to a small number of fans that can be safely assembled only around the 18th green. No roaming of the 7,596-yard course will be allowed, just one of the specific protocols in place for this event.

“It’s a difficult thing because of the changing nature of it,” Urban said. “It was something we embraced because it allowed us to be creative and it allowed us to solve some problems. When a tournament has been here for 20-plus years, as this one has, there’s a lot of things that are done the same from year to year. This allowed us to look at things from a different angle, maybe even try some new things in some areas operationally.”

The first full-field event of 2021, the Sony Open, follows next week at Waialae Country Club on Oahu, and the Champions Tour starts its calendar year at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai on the Big Island the following week.

“I would say we’re in the business of solving problems and we had a big problem this year,” Urban said. “So, we’ve done our best and we’ve worked with all of the relevant agencies, in concert with the other Hawaii PGA Tour events.”

Levinson said the tour is not like other professional sports leagues.

“We’re a membership organization, we’re a little bit different than other sports leagues,” he said. “The athletes are the PGA Tour.”

There is a 16-member player advisory committee that is elected by tour players and there are also four players who serve on the PGA Tour policy board.

Players are tested for COVID-19 before they board a plane for any tour event and again when they arrive. There will be a testing truck on site this week as well for anyone from the tour group who may show symptoms.

“We knew we were going to have support and commitment right out of the gate and that’s just been so critical to its success,” Levinson said. “To a degree, I would say, ‘Yes, this plan has worked as we anticipated it would because we knew we had buy-in from our constituents and we knew we had good, sound advice coming to us.’ “

The Maui County government has also been in constant contact with the organizers.

“Mayor (Michael) Victorino is such a great supporter of this event and he’s been in the loop, in lockstep with us ever since the first plan we presented to him,” Urban said. “Also, up through the state and Governor (David) Ige’s office as well. That support has been truly instrumental in making this thing possible and we’re grateful for it.”

Urban said the Plantation Course itself looks great after the $10 million refinement last year.

“I was actually just talking with our head agronomy contact, Mike Crawford, he does this for tournaments all over the country,” Urban said. “He’s the PGA Tour’s agronomy lead and he’s been raving about the condition of the golf course here, just about how beautiful it was and how playable it is. A year later — it was fresh last year, it was brand new — and a year of letting grass grow and some treating, you can improve things like drainage.

“It’s not immediately noticeable, but I think our players will notice it in terms of how it plays and I think it’s going to look absolutely spectacular on TV.”

The tournament raised more than $459,000 for local charities last year and Sentry Insurance added $200,000 more in May to help Maui United Way with pandemic relief efforts.

“On a yearly basis, it’s the thing we’re most proud of doing,” Urban said. “We support a number of charities that sort of span the range. … Our title sponsors have said they always want to be a year-long presence here and it’s not just about the tournament. There’s no better way to do that than letting actions speak louder than words and that’s a heck of an action.”

Urban is confident the event can come close to last year’s charity number, even with limited tickets available.

“We never know the number until after the event, but what I will say is that we are going to be able to make a very significant charitable donation like we do every year,” Urban said. “That’s what makes me most excited about the work we’ve done with everyone. … Putting on a safe and healthy event is important because that allows us to host the event and give that money back to the community.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.


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