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Two weeks away, LPGA prepping for return as coronavirus rages on

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The Marathon Classic won’t be played in front of fans, after all.

The Toledo Blade, the tournament’s hometown newspaper, first reported the news Thursday morning, with the LPGA and the Marathon Classic confirming.

“I applaud Marathon Petroleum, Dana and the entire tournament team for working so hard to protect the health and safety of everyone involved in their event and the northwest Ohio community,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “This was a difficult decision as fans have always been a big part of the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana.”

The decision came after consultations with local health and state officials.

The news also came in the wake of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s stern warning to his state in a televised address Wednesday evening. The governor lifted public gathering restrictions last month, paving the way for fans to attend amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he warned Wednesday that COVID-19’s threat is growing dangerously in the state.

“Today, more Ohioans are getting sick than at any previous point in this pandemic,” DeWine said. “This is a worrisome, disturbing reversal of our progress ... Ohio is sliding. We are sliding down a very dangerous path.

“We must act, and we must act now.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, DeWine said it took Ohio 20 days to reach 1,500 total COVID-19 cases.

“Last week, we saw over 1,500 cases in a single day,” he said.


Mell explains how LPGA plans to handle return to play

Mell explains how LPGA plans to handle return to play

The LPGA faces a daunting return with or without fans after being in pause mode for five months.

The Marathon Classic is the second of back-to-back weeks in the LPGA’s planned restart, with both to be played in the Toledo area. The Drive On Championship is scheduled July 31-Aug. 2 at Inverness Club, with Marathon scheduled the week after, at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.

The LPGA’s restart was slated to begin almost two months after the PGA Tour made its return, to allow the women’s tour, with its more limited resources, time to watch how other sports were re-opening and to get their testing protocols in order.

Of course, there was also the hope that extra time would see the pandemic slow or ease.

Instead, the LPGA finds itself ramping up plans for its return amid a growing fire, with a record number of COVID-19 cases reported in the United States this week, with increases reported in 41 states.

The tour released its new COVID-19 testing plan and operational protocols to media on Wednesday, laying out a map to navigate players, caddies and staff through a schedule that is more ambitious than what the PGA Tour is attempting.

How so?

The LPGA showed a willingness to pursue its reopening with both fans and pro-ams, ultimately leaving the final decision at the Marathon Classic to the title sponsor and local health officials. While the tournament won’t open its gates to fans, it will stage two pro-ams.

The PGA Tour has not played in front of fans in the six events it has staged in its return, nor has it staged any pro-ams. The men announced earlier this week that they won’t open their gates to spectators for the rest of this wraparound season, nor will they host any pro-ams.

The LPGA pro-ams are planned with amateurs required to follow LPGA protocols, including COVID-19 testing, with special pro-am rules in place for social distancing.


Current LPGA tournament schedule


For community-focused events like Marathon, fans, pro-ams and corporate hospitality are more integral to the tournament’s purpose and bottom line than they are to PGA Tour events.

“If we can't figure out how to play pro-ams, the LPGA is going to have some challenges in ‘20 and beyond,” Whan said.

There’s growing excitement over the LPGA’s reopening in the player ranks, but some trepidation, too.

“We’re excited about getting back and playing,” Whan said. “We’ve waited long enough. We’ve got plenty of athletes that are itching to compete. I know we probably have athletes, too, who aren’t itching as much to compete ... But we are trying to make sure that we’ve built all the resources that they would need.”

Whan knows this plan comes with risk that some players don’t want to assume.

“It is strange to get started in a time in which we know we’re going to have positive [COVID-19] results, no matter what we build,” Whan said.

Whan has built a safety valve for players uneasy about returning amid the pandemic. He did so by merging this year’s priority rankings with next year’s, so players who aren’t comfortable competing this season will know their status will be protected going into next year.

“I want to make sure what happens in 2020 is that my athletes and my caddies make their own personal decisions about when, where and how much they play,” Whan said.

How do you balance health and safety against economic realities?

Whan is trying to answer that question as heavily as any sports organization’s leader with its imminent restart.

“It's been a lot of work to finalize our back-to-play protocols,” LPGA chief tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio said. “Everything is rooted in health and safety, first and foremost, and nothing surprising in our plan, versus other professional sports leagues. We've consulted with just about everybody, I feel.”

That includes the CDC, the Federal Coronavirus Task Force, the PGA Tour, the European Tour and other professional sports leagues.

Still, Whan acknowledges the inevitability of players and caddies testing positive, and the possibility somebody could get sick in a foreign country.

After those Ohio events, the LPGA will head to Europe for back-to-back weeks in Scotland, with a charter flight planned to take players and caddies from Toledo to Edinburgh, for the Aberdeen Standard Investment Ladies Scottish Open and the AIG Women’s British Open.


Ladies Scottish Open and Women's British Open to be played without fans

Ladies Scottish Open and Women's British Open to be played without fans

If an LPGA player or caddie gets sick there, the tour’s new protocols would require they quarantine for 10 days in that country. An LPGA or tournament staff member would be assigned to assist any player or caddie in quarantine on the road. Whan’s particularly concerned about the possibility players and caddies get sick far from home and loved ones.

“If that doesn’t wear on you, then you’re not human,” Whan said.

The LPGA is making its plans with a budget that is a fraction of what other male sports leagues enjoy. If a PGA Tour player gets sick, there’s a stipend of up to $75,000 coming their way to help. If an LPGA pro gets sick, there’s $5,000 to help.

It’s one of the stark contrasts in the difference between the men’s and women’s games.

“It’s not the first huge difference you’ve seen between the PGA Tour and the LPGA,” Whan said. “I’m not proud of that, but it’s just a reality in terms of the resources.”

The LPGA has canceled 13 events so far this year, with the Buick Shanghai in China likely to be confirmed as the 14th. There are 17 events left on the schedule, not counting Shanghai.

“I fully believe we'll lose another event or two or three along the way,” Whan said. “I couldn't really tell you which ones, but it would probably be 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.”

The LPGA began this year as robust as it’s ever been financially, with record prize money to be played for and a healthy cash reserve. It was a testament to Whan’s abilities, after inheriting a tour that many veteran LPGA players believed was on the verge of collapse when he took over in 2010.

Every event canceled this year affects that reserve, as do the increased costs of these new COVID-19 protocols.

“I’m not a guy who loses money, it’s just not in me,” said Whan, whose tour hasn’t lost money in any of his 10 years at the helm. “We took a tough shot. COVID-19 is going to definitely rattle us in 2020, but we are not searching for funding, and we could live through a 2021 COVID, if ’21 becomes like ’20 ...

“We are not threatened. We are not dangerously low. It’s just tough to see a figure in red at the bottom of a spread sheet. It’s just not who we are as a team.”

Whan has said several times that he won’t make decisions about 2020 that threaten the long-term future of the tour.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the 2021 season won’t begin still amid the pandemic.

Dr. Bruce Thomas, the LPGA’s medical director, is teamed with Daly-Donofrio in overseeing the execution of the tour’s COVID-19 protocols. Medical staff will attend or be on call at every event.

Here are the basics of the LPGA protocols:

• Within seven days of arriving at a tournament, players, caddies and staff will be required to take an at-home COVID-19 saliva test.

• Upon arriving at the tournament site, players, caddies and staff will take another COVID-19 saliva test. While awaiting results, they will be allowed to use the grounds to practice. Upon receipt of a negative result, they will be allowed clubhouse access. Vault and Rutgers Lab have been partnered to run test results.

• Players, caddies and staff will complete daily healthcare questionnaires and submit to daily thermal temperature screenings.

• If anyone presents with a high temperature or begins displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they’ll consult with an on-site tournament physician.

• If there is a positive test, the person will be immediately isolated and withdrawn from the tournament. Also, if a player or caddies tests positive, a stipend will be awarded as assistance. According to tour sources, it’s $5,000 if the player tests positive at a tournament site. LPGA or tournament staff member will be assigned to assist the player or caddie during any quarantine required.

• In order for a player to return to competition, the LPGA will follow CDC guidelines, which currently includes quarantining for a minimum of 10 days and returning two negative tests.

• With asymptomatic cases, the tour will determine next steps on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the medical director.

• At a tournament site, 6-feet social distancing is encouraged.

• No handshakes, hugs, high fives, fist bumps, etc.

• Face coverings must be used while indoors at a tournament site, or outside the ropes, if social distancing is an issue (i.e. shuttle carts, scoring area).

• Hand washing and sanitizing is encouraged as often as possible.

• Symptom monitoring will be done by Healthy Roster; with symptoms/fever reported to LPGA.

• Cambia Health Solutions (masks), Global Rescue (medical advisory support), Theraworx Protect (hygiene protection), WHOOP (respiratory monitoring), NEC (biometric, technology solutions), Meijer and Kimberly Clark (PPE support) are partners supporting protocols.