Golf association adapting to pandemic realities

Minnesota Golf Association official Doug Hoffmann putts on the ninth green at Edina Country Club on Tuesday. The round served as reconnaissance for Hoffmann, who will set up the course for the MGA Amateur Championship that starts Monday.

MGA keeps most of its events, but schedule reconfigured

First, the question was whether COVID-19 would permit golf tournaments to take place in Minnesota. Then, once organizations such as the Minnesota Golf Association got the go-ahead to stage their events, it became a question of how many players would show up.

If next week’s MGA State Amateur at Edina Country Club is an indication, players are flocking back to competitive golf.

“I don’t think anybody ever expected people to respond to golf as they have,” said Apple Valley resident Doug Hoffmann, who oversees MGA tournaments. “I originally budgeted for 675 entries, but it actually exceeded my estimate. As long as people have the financial resources and time to play, they’re going to play. Golf is going great guns because everybody and his brother are coming back to the game.”

Of course, the pandemic has required everybody associated with sports to be flexible. Hoffmann needed to look at several scenarios for the MGA tournament schedule, which has been significantly altered. A few events were canceled; others were changed to later dates and/or moved to different courses. The MGA’s women’s match play and senior women’s match play tournaments were held in mid to late June, as was the state junior girls tourney.

The state amateur, running Monday, July 13, through Wednesday, July 15, is being held on its originally scheduled dates. The difference is it’s the first men’s championship on the reconfigured schedule. In a typical golf season, several men’s events would have preceded the state amateur.

“I don’t know that I anticipated our first men’s championship to be the state am,” Hoffmann said. “But if worse came to worst, we were somehow going to hold our men’s and women’s amateur championships.”

The MGA Women’s Amateur will be later this month at Stillwater Country Club.

Hoffmann pointed out the United States Golf Association has had to make similar decisions to prioritize its highest-profile events. The USGA is going ahead with its men’s and women’s open and amateur championships but called off the rest of its 2020 events. Among the cancellations was the U.S. Junior Amateur scheduled to take place at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

By comparison, “we got off pretty easily,” Hoffmann said. “It took a lot of planning, but you create scenarios and let COVID play itself out.”

One hundred fifty-six players will compete in the MGA State Amateur, including defending champion Clay Kuchera. Local players in the field include Eagan’s Trent Peterson, the 2019 MGA Men’s Player of the Year; Farmington native Sammy Schmitz, a six-time MGA Player of the Year; Rosemount’s Max Tylke, second in the 2019 Minnesota State Open; and former Lakeville South High School player Noah Rasinski, who tied for fourth in last year’s state amateur. The youngest player in the field is expected to be 15-year-old Kyler Schwamb, who will be a sophomore at Farmington High School in the fall.

The pandemic also forced changes to tournament operations – and required Hoffmann to apply anything he knew about engineering. Health officials are recommending not removing the flagstick, and courses are using several devices that raise the bottom of the hole and allow players to retrieve the ball without touching the flag.

Hoffmann’s concern is that some of those devices make it easier to eject a shot that otherwise would have gone in the hole, and that will not work in a highly competitive tournament. Hoffmann and a golf course superintendent rigged their own system using PVC pipe, foam swimming noodles and plastic ring. It will be in play for all MGA tournaments.

So far the MGA has not allowed caddies in its tournaments, although that’s subject to change. Caddies are being allowed at this week’s Minnesota State Open in Lake Elmo, and Hoffmann said his association is waiting to see how that works before deciding on whether to allow caddies at the state amateur.

Edina Country Club will provide volunteers to rake bunkers so players and caddies don’t have to touch rakes. Scoring will be done electronically, with players using a scorekeeping app. Spectators will be allowed provided they observe social distancing protocol.

With players not raking bunkers or removing flags, “my experience is it’s improved the pace of play by 20 minutes a round,” Hoffmann said.

By next week, he hopes people will be talking about the quality of play, not coronavirus-related accommodations. The course will need watering in response to continued warm, humid weather, which could lead to more birdies and lower scores.

“It’s going to be a fabulous championship. Especially if we continue to get some rain to keep the golf course a little softer, it’ll be there for the taking for the really good players,” he said.

Hoffmann said he’s proud that the MGA has shown it can adapt and conduct events safely in the pandemic era. At the same time, “by the end of the year, I hope we’re never doing this again,” he added.

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