SPORTS-GLF-TRAVELERS-GET

Chez Reavie of the United States walks to the 18th green during the final round of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands on June 23, 2019 in Cromwell, Ct. The Travelers Championship will look different this year. (Rob Carr/Getty Images/TNS)

The PGA Tour is back – and with it, the promise that the action will soon return to Connecticut, the Travelers Championship keeping its spot on the calendar even if most of the usual trappings have been stripped away by pandemic protocol.

So what did the Charles Schwab Challenge, a four-day event staged without fans on a classic course in Fort Worth, Texas, teach us about what we can expect when the world’s best players descend on Cromwell next week? The tournament runs Monday June 25 through the 28. 

Well, for one thing, the tour seems determined not to squander a chance to grow its audience, implementing a number of innovations in its TV coverage and increasing the fun factor on social media with an assist from some high-profile golf fans. And the emphasis, clearly, is on making what many would classify as a niche sport more inclusive and engaging.

Here’s how golf seized the spotlight, and what we’ll see from our couches when Cromwell takes center stage:

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Sports fans have been starving for something, anything, to wrest control of the airwaves from re-runs, Bulls and tigers – and that includes some of the players and coaches who would normally be contributing to the drama.

With that in mind, the tour enlisted some celebrity starters to take up the ritual of announcing a player’s arrival on the first tee. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did the honors for fellow Californian and “avid amateur Scrabble player,” Max Homa, noting his prowess as a brutally honest judge of golf talent on Twitter.

When it was time for Justin Thomas to tee off, the fourth-ranked player in the world got a boost from the football coach at his alma mater, Nick Saban, who called him “a true Alabama legend.” He would know.

And if the dulcet tones of CBS’ lead broadcaster Jim Nantz aren’t for you, there were some unique alternatives available on Twitter, where Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker and Giants receiver Golden Tate were among the guest commentators assigned to the PGA Tour’s live streaming coverage.

Another simulcast option centered on the sports betting angle. The Action Network’s Jason Sobel and Darren Rovell offered real-time gambling advice and assessed their own picks – good and bad.

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The longstanding tagline for CBS Sports’ annual coverage of the Masters, delivered with trademark tranquility by Nantz, is, “a tradition unlike any other.” But a slight tweak to that phrase reflects the network’s new reality.

“A production unlike any golf production,” was how CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus described it on a conference call last week, referring to all the bells and whistles planned for the Charles Schwab Challenge and beyond. A bank of monitors in an NBC Sports control room in Stamford was one of five units contributing to what CBS dubbed “a globally connected production.”

McManus estimated about half of the typical on-site workforce would be used, spread out among an increased number of production trucks in order to comply with social distancing requirements. Nantz, for instance, would be isolated in a tower by the 18th green while his broadcast partners chimed in remotely from Orlando.

But however far-flung the participants, the aim for the broadcast team was clear: put out a personality-driven product.

“It’s an opportunity for the players to invest in their own game,” said Nantz. “Widen the audience base for the PGA Tour. Make it more fun. More insightful. Bring us inside the ropes. Bring us inside their minds.”

As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing. Early on in Thursday’s coverage, Jon Rahm holed a long chip, prompting his playing partner, Brooks Koepka, to salute the effort with some colorful language that was audible on the broadcast.

Nantz quickly interjected and smoothed things over.

“Well, we were hoping for better audio with no fans surrounding the course,” Nantz said, chuckling. “We apologize if anyone was offended by what they may have heard there.”

The hope is for more players to join Rickie Fowler, who wore a microphone during the tournament, as willing participants to the tour’s new inside-the-ropes policy. But for now it’s quite possible for on-course microphones to pick up conversations that might otherwise be drowned out by ambient noise.

Other unvarnished insights from players and their caddies were a little more wholesome. Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller, with whom the player shared a celebratory chest bump after jarring a bunker shot to win the 2017 Travelers, was caught successfully negotiating a change in strategy.

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It’s customary for a tour pro to acknowledge the crowd with a wave or a tip of the cap after rolling in a birdie, so a lot of players couldn’t help but honor the tradition with only their peers watching.

But how does one react to a silent ace? Sung Kang painted that picture on Thursday with a crisp 9-iron that bounced once before plunging into the par-3 13th hole, strolling after his shot with all the zeal of someone trying to remember where he parked his car. A somewhat icy response from his playing partners only added to the weirdness. Perhaps they were just being mindful of social distancing.

Players by and large used some variation on the word “strange” to describe the fan-less environment. Some even acknowledged it had negatively impacted their play.

“I told my caddie early on, I didn’t feel like I was hitting it as far because my adrenaline wasn’t up,” reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland said after his opening-round score of 65. “It’s a big deal.”

There are, of course, practical advantages to having the fans around. Just as a tree branch can redirect an errant shot, human limbs can create a favorable, if painful, bounce. Players can have difficulty finding a ball in the rough when it hasn’t been trampled.

But on the flip side, there will inevitably be some scrambling opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with grandstands, tents and towers on the course. Koepka was treated to one such break on Thursday, when he had a clear angle to the green despite yanking his previous shot into another zip code.

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There were, however, some crafty viewing solutions devised by the fans in Fort Worth that raise questions about whether homeowners at TPC River Highlands and its surrounding neighborhoods might be able to host a watch party during Travelers week.

In a nod to the rooftop seating across from Wrigley Field from Chicago, one group of fans at the Charles Schwab Challenge built a grandstand in the backyard of a residence in view of the 15th and 16th holes. They outfitted it with TV screens, a full bar and even an announcer, who had some fun at Bryson DeChambeau’s expense when he played the 16th hole, per a Golfweek report.

“I thought it was amazing what they did, saying I was coming in at 300 or whatever pounds – that was funny,” DeChambeau said. “I really enjoyed that. It’s fun to have people rooting for you every once in a while out there. We don’t get that very much right now.”

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