Anatomy of a (very long) season
July 20, 2021
By Laury Livsey, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica Staff
It was a beautiful March morning at Estrella del Mar Resort. PGA TOUR Latinoamérica players were in a good mood, and why not? The dewy air in Mazatlán, along the Pacific coast across from the Baja California Peninsula, was warm and inviting, the players excited to begin another season. There was very little wind that Thursday morning—hardly any all week—meaning Estrella del Mar, a resort course, had almost no defense against players with world-class talent. Those in the field knew they would have to go low every day if they hoped to contend. By the end of the week, Brazil’s Alex Rocha went lower than anybody else, recording rounds of 65-67-65 to start and then finishing with a flourish, firing a 10-under 62 on the final day to post a relatively stress-free, three-shot triumph over Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz. The season was successfully underway.
All week, there had been talk—subtle undertones—of the virus plaguing parts of the world, a story that gained more and more coverage on local and national telecasts with each passing day. Players were aware that PGA TOUR Series-China had postponed its Qualifying Tournaments and that the circuit, one of the PGA TOUR’s three International Tours to which PGA TOUR Latinoamérica was one, had pushed back the start of its season.
PGA TOUR Latinoamérica had taken measures, as well, placing hand sanitizer at the Estrella del Mar entrances to the clubhouse, restaurant and scoring areas. The Tour asked players to use it liberally, while keeping their distances from each other and avoiding shaking hands and other physical contact.
Still, it was a happy time in Mexico, with players dispersing following the season-opener, the plan to regather in three weeks for a three-tournaments-in-one-month-stretch in Argentina.
The events in Buenos Aires, Rio Del Hondo and Cordoba never happened, and eventually Tour officials had to adjust, reconstruct and reconstruct again—and again—the schedule as the pandemic caused one change after another. The Tour’s slate ultimately became one, elongated season, a March 2020-to-summer-2021 marathon.
Finally, with health protocols in place, the Tour began play again, in Miami, in December, and the Tour ventured outside the U.S., a week later, playing in the Dominican Republic before observing a Christmas and New Year break, returning to Estrella del Mar for a second time, for the Mexico Open, signifying the Tour’s 2021 restart. It held events in Florida, Colombia and Ecuador after that and then returned to the country where the season began, this week for the Bupa Championship presented by Volvo outside Cancun.
In what is easily the longest season in PGA TOUR Latinoamérica history but with the fewest number of tournaments played—all because of COVID-19, a coronavirus that plagued the entire world—it’s a notable achievement that the Tour even had a season at all. Yet, as players descend on Mexico for the season-ending tournament, 501 days since Rocha walked off victorious in Mazatlán, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica will amazingly, against longshot odds and numerous roadblocks, finish what it started.
A review of everything that happened is in order.
Victor Lange, a Johannesburg native who tied for 51st at the Estrella del Mar Open, flies from Mazatlán to Mexico City then connects through Atlanta for the 15 1/2-hour flight home. He intends to spend a bit of time in South Africa before heading to Argentina for the three-tournament swing later in the month and into April.
After playing one round of THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, amid concerns of a worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan makes the difficult decision to cancel the TOUR’s flagship event after one round and also halts all upcoming tournaments, through the Valero Texas Open. That decision affects the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA TOUR Champions and, of course, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica. Players immediately begin canceling flights to and hotels in Argentina.
“We have pledged from the start to be responsible, thoughtful and transparent with our decision process,” Monahan explains. “At this point—and as the situation continues to rapidly change—the right thing to do for our players and our fans is to pause.”
Earlier in the day, Argentina Golf Association representatives, who are in Northeast Florida to attend THE PLAYERS, share information with PGA TOUR Latinoamérica officials that the Argentine government is restricting any international events from taking place through April due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
PGA TOUR Latinoamérica Executive Director Todd Rhinehart sends out a notification to players via email explaining the situation in Argentina and those tournaments’ postponements. Even had the PGA TOUR continued to play, Argentina was a non-starter due to government-imposed restrictions.
“We are working to reschedule these tournaments for later in the year. We also ask you to not book any travel for any other tournaments at this time as we are determining the exact restart date to our season. We will have an update early next week,” Rhinehart wrote.
The PGA TOUR issues a statement regarding additional tournament cancellations as other professional sports leagues, U.S. college athletic programs and Augusta National Golf Club and the PGA of America, who run the Masters Tournament and the PGA Championship, respectively, are postponing or canceling events, too.
Part of the statement reads: “With the most recent recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the Office of the President of the United States, the PGA TOUR will now cancel four additional events: through the AT&T Byron Nelson (May 7-10).”
That same day, Lange travels to Durban to be with friends, one of the planned activities a hike in the mountains in Drakensberg, a two-hour drive from Durban. During the excursion, one of Lange’s friends injures her toe. Lange and another friend escort her to a clinic for treatment. As a precaution, as has become the norm throughout the world, medical personnel ask if anybody has traveled outside South Africa recently. Lange mentions his visit to Mexico, and the clinic tests him for COVID-19.
The phone rings, and Lange answers. It is the clinic calling. Lange has tested positive for COVID-19, but he is the only one of his friends who has contracted the virus. Although he shows zero symptoms and feels “normal,” he immediately enters quarantine at his parents’ home. He also notifies PGA TOUR Latinoamérica officials, and the Tour contacts Patrick Newcomb, a Tour player who shared a room with Lange during the week in Mazatlán. They also call all the players Lange played with during the week, and everybody tests negative. PGA TOUR Latinoamérica issues a statement involving Lange’s situation.
“We appreciate Victor’s prompt disclosure of his diagnosis, which allows the PGA TOUR to not only alert those he may have come in contact with during his lone PGA TOUR Latinoamérica start this season but also provides an opportunity to remind fans of the critical need to follow current recommendations and mandates to protect others,” a portion of the statement reads.
With COVID-19 dominating the news and deaths worldwide reported daily, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica announces the postponement of five additional tournaments—eight in all—through the Bupa Match Play, scheduled for May 28-31 in Cancun, Mexico.
“At this time, we are analyzing various models for a revised schedule that could start in conjunction with the PGA TOUR’s Charles Schwab Challenge, or later in the summer,” a message to PGA TOUR Latinoamérica players states. “Our intent is to play a full season, but the final number of tournaments we conduct will be dependent on when we can restart the season and golf course availability with our federation partners and host organizations.”
Rhinehart, and his staff, including Director of Business Affairs Cristina Vanderbeck, knows they face challenges their counterparts at the PGA TOUR’s other five affiliated Tours won’t encounter to the same degree: trying to hold tournaments in multiple countries. The work begins, staff coordinating with each country and observing a wide array of varying policies surrounding the pandemic.
“We knew we couldn’t make a blanket approach, understanding what the government and golf federation, for instance, in Peru was thinking could be totally different from what was happening and what we would encounter in Chile,” Rhinehart remembers. “We had to reconfirm our schedule and figure out where to play. It was definitely been a great exercise in patience.”
“It was countless calls, and video conferences with the different federations, partners and government officials,” Vanderbeck says last week, “to learn and understand the different restrictions, which ranged from full closures to curfews, etc. We also had to think of our members, their nationalities and what countries they had visited last. That, too, would have an impact on whether or not they were allowed to enter a certain country. There was never a unilateral position, so we had to treat every country differently and respect how they were handling the situation.”
By the time the calendar turns to a new month, Lange, still with no symptoms, feeling healthy and his doctor giving him OK to resume his day-to-day activities, is ready to return to his chosen profession. The problem? There is literally no place for him to play tournament golf.
As expected, the PGA TOUR announces the resumption of its season, beginning with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, in late-May. Commissioner Monahan shares his thoughts:
“Today’s announcement is another positive step for our fans and players as we look toward the future, but as we’ve stressed on several occasions, we will resume competition only when—working closely with our tournaments, partners and communities—it is considered safe to do so under the guidance of the leading public health authorities.”
The Korn Ferry Tour announces it will resume play and conduct a wraparound season, taking its 2020 tournaments and folding them into a revised 2020-21 season, with five new tournaments a part of the schedule as well as a reshaped fall swing. The Tour also announces that Korn Ferry Tour players won’t move on to the PGA TOUR until the after the concluding event of the 2020-21 season, the Korn Ferry Tour Championship in Newburgh, Indiana, in early September. That trickles down to the International Tours: No players moving up to the Korn Ferry Tour for at least a year.
Understanding that visitors entering Canada must self-quarantine for 14 days by government mandate, the Mackenzie Tour realizes with a short weather window and the financial burden quarantining would put on non-Canadian players, it makes the decision and announces it is canceling its season.
The Korn Ferry Tour resumes play after canceling 10 tournaments. Two new events in Florida, in Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine, kick off the circuit’s revamped schedule.
Argentina tournaments, with a significant place on the 2020 PGA TOUR Latinoamérica schedule, continue in jeopardy. Slated to host three tournaments, as well as three additional events in the pre-pandemic-planned 2020-21 wraparound season (two official and one Qualifying Tournament), restrictions in the country force Tour officials give its originals schedules a major facelift. They recognize that playing any tournaments in Argentina in 2020 won’t happen, competition there in 2021 also looking more and more unlikely.
Vanderbeck, with her Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking ability, becomes the point person with both Argentina and Brazil but, in essence, all of Latin America.
“When we looked at the diversity of our Tour and the different countries and cultures, we immediately thought how our work would be impacted during a pandemic,” Vanderbeck recalls of her constant communication with those in Latin America. “Once our season was initially postponed, we stayed really close with all our partners in order to find the best way to keep our season alive.”
The PGA TOUR announces the formation of the LOCALiQ Series, a set of eight tournaments designed for members of PGA TOUR Latinoamérica, the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada and PGA TOUR Series-China. All eight tournaments are scheduled in the Southeastern U.S. between August and October.
PGA TOUR Series-China Executive Director Greg Carlson announces that “staging a Tour based in China with players from five different continents is just not feasible at this time,” and he regrettably announces the cancelation of the 2020 season.
PGA TOUR Latinoamérica announces amended plans to its schedule that features seven additional tournaments, with the season restarting on December 10 in Miami followed by a trip to the Dominican Republic for the Puerto Plata Open the following week.
“We will plan to start back in early February (2021) and continue playing through mid-June to complete our 2020-21season,” Rhinehart messages to players. “The fact we’ll be playing in 2020 and that other planned tournaments will be rescheduled is extraordinarily good news considering all the challenges we’ve faced in Latin America due to COVID-19. Since playing the Estrella del Mar Open in Mazatlán in March and then experiencing the disappointment of indefinitely postponing play after that, we still always felt we would play again in 2020.”
Rhinehart hopes to play events in Argentina and Brazil but clarifies by writing that the playing of these anticipated tournaments will be based on the current border openings and travel restrictions in those respective countries, with postponed tournaments not occurring until late in the 2021 calendar year.
“This announcement is one we know our players have been waiting to hear,” Rhinehart says in a statement later.
The LOCALiQ Series concludes its season outside Atlanta, at TPC Sugarloaf. Finland’s Toni Hakula is the lone PGA TOUR Latinoamérica winner during the eight-tournament series. He captures The Challenge at Harbor Hills in Central Florida.
“The LOCALiQ Series was fun. I’ve never played those kinds of tournaments with those kinds of fields,” Ortiz says later. “I had a blast traveling with my friends, with the Mexican guys who I’ve known for a long time.”
In a message to the membership, Rhinehart confirms to players that due to continued restrictions getting into and out of specific Latin American countries, the Tour will conduct eight total tournaments but still extend Korn Ferry Tour benefits to the top-10 Points List finishers.
“We anticipate announcing the remainder of our schedule at the beginning of the new year. Our primary mission is to complete a 2020-2021 season to graduate members to the Korn Ferry Tour,” he writes.
In Miami, the first round of the Shell Championship begins, 277 days since Rocha’s Mazatlán triumph.
“We always felt this day would come, even back in March when there were so many uncertainties,” says Rhinehart. “It’s been gratifying to be able to tell the players we would be restarting our season, and now to see them this week and experience the excitement they have about being able to compete again has been a real highlight.” MJ Maguire goes on to win the tournament, with Brandon Matthews taking the title the following week in the Dominican Republic. It is the first time PGA TOUR Latinoamérica has played events on back-to-back weeks since November 2019.
“It’s great to have this Tour back. I’ve really missed competing and playing against these guys,” Maguire explains.
With agreements in place with both Mexico’s and Ecuador’s long-time partner, the Tour announces the first two tournaments of the 2021 portion of the schedule, with Mazatlán hosting Mexico’s national open at Estrella del Mar in late-March and the Banco Del Pacifico Open set for mid-May in Quito. Ortiz goes on to win in Mazatlán, becoming only the sixth Mexican since 1944 to win his country’s national open.
Rhinehart notifies players that the Tour will return to Colombia in mid-June for the Holcim Colombia Classic presented by Volvo, the Tour’s first event in Colombia since 2017.
“Returning to Colombia has been a goal of ours for a long time, and to accomplish that in the middle of a pandemic was a great feat,” remembers Vanderbeck. “While we missed going to marquee events such as the Argentine Open, and playing tournaments in Chile and Brazil, we were thrilled to strengthen our relationships with existing tournaments and form new ones.”
Three weeks before the Tour plays in Colombia, it announces the creation of The Club at Weston Hills Open in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suburb of Weston, an event that kicks off a three-tournament-in-three-week stretch that includes the visit to Florida preceding the trip to Colombia. Ecuador’s Banco Del Pacifico Open completes the swing. Matthews wins his second tournament of the season, grabbing a one-shot win at Weston Hills, Sam Stevens breaks through and wins in Colombia and Conner Godsey captures a playoff win in Ecuador.
The day after Stevens’ victory, the Tour announces the creation of the Bupa Championship presented by Volvo, set for Tulum, Mexico.
“This season really showed how invested all our partners are about seeing golf thrive in Latin America. The resilience, patience, and creativity showed this season is what allowed us to succeed,” Vanderbeck continues.
The calendar brings the Tour to this week in Tulum, Mexico, the end of the season—finally—in view. This week’s field boasts 133 players, and on Sunday, Rhinehart will present the Bupa Championship trophy to the tournament winner. He will then present the top-10 Points List finishers with jackets and scarves emblematic of their season-long success. The top-five finishers will move to the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour.
“The season began so long ago with such promise and high hopes. There were a few times we looked like the season was lost, but we kept at it, and everybody—the staff, our partners, the golf courses and local federations—made a season happen,” Rhinehart says standing in the bright sunshine at PGA Riviera Maya, a scene not exactly dissimilar to what he experienced in Mazatlán in March 2020. Of course, a lot has happened in between those two tournaments.
“I’ll never not be amazed at what transpired over these last 500-plus days. It’s been remarkable.”