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Pro golf during a pandemic: no heart, no soul, no fun

I’ll never forget my first PGA Tournament in Las Vegas.

It was the 1988 Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational. My first-round assignment: interview Sandy Lyle, the Scotsman who had just won the Masters. I tracked him down in the parking lot of the Desert Inn where he was loading his clubs into his car, and he could not have been more accommodating.

The date was May 4. It was the day of the PEPCON explosion in Henderson.

I was living in a studio apartment downtown. As I was tying my shoes to leave for the golf course, there was a percussive boom that literally knocked me off the sofa bed.

Greg Norman thought a jumbo jet had crashed on the back nine, it sounded so close.

As surreal and eerie as that day was, being at TPC Summerlin for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open that concluded Sunday topped it. COVID-19 was the leader in the clubhouse and not even a three-way playoff in which Martin Laird emerged victorious over Austin Cook and Matthew Wolff could overtake it as the big story.

Laird sank a 23-foot birdie putt on the second hole of sudden death as daylight was running out to at least provide a dramatic flourish to a Las Vegas PGA Tour stop that was like no other.

No buzz for birdies

There were no lines for the shuttle buses from the Suncoast and almost zero riders.

No hospitality suites.

No NFL games blaring from the flat screens on The Hill.

No UNLV Rebels, past or present, making a charge.

No Dwaine Knight, their coach, following them around and beaming with pride.

Not even a cameo appearance by Justin Timberlake.

Granted, Mr. SexyBack pulled out as host and partial title sponsor in 2012. But you get the idea. A Shriners Open without him and Ellen DeGeneres and the other trappings mentioned above means you can add three more negatives to the list in describing pro golf during a pandemic.

No heart.

No soul.

Not much fun.

Bring on the freight trains

During two of the past three weekends I have covered NASCAR at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the PGA at TPC — two sporting events I initially believed were better suited to no spectators than most. In one, you can’t hear the crowd over the roar of the engines; in the other, signs are held up before each shot insisting you keep quiet.

But the kind of hush experienced Sunday may warrant adding a railroad spur and some freight trains to the back side of the course like at Chambers Bay for the 2015 U.S. Open, if Dr. Fauci and the others do not get a handle on this blasted virus.

Cue up Tiger Woods’ “Better than Most” putt at TPC Sawgrass or Phil Mickelson’s not-so-flying leap at the 2004 Masters on YouTube, watch them with the volume turned down and see if you don’t agree.

On Friday, Sergio Garcia sort of summed up the overriding spirit of the week when he was asked about holing out a lob wedge from 111 yards.

“The little amount of people that were there, they kind of went crazy,” said the still popular Spaniard of playing golf in front of course marshals, a couple of guys sporting fezzes and a bunch of crickets. “Obviously would have been nice to do with crowds.”

But the most profound words of Shriners weekend — besides the exhortation of the Golf Channel analyst who implored of the three participants “somebody make it!” as daylight was running out Sunday — go to the man from the PGA Tour in prefacing a question to recently crowned U.S. Open champion and budding superstar Bryson DeChambeau.

“You’ve done a lot of big things and a lot of people are paying attention. Some people would say you might be the talk of golf since we returned from the pandemic,” it was said of the big man who at 240 pounds no longer walks softly but carries the biggest stick on tour.

“(But) how would you know? There is no one here.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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