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'Itching to compete': One hour north, south of Detroit, Champions, LPGA tours get rolling again

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The PGA Tour returned to action eight weeks ago.

Now, this week, 57 minutes south of Detroit and 56 minutes north of the city, the rest of major professional golf in the United States gets back into the swing of things.

Jerry Kelly celebrates after he sinks the final putt on the 18th green of the Ally Challenge.

The 50-and-older Champions Tour starts back up for the first time since early March in California when it plays the third annual Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club in Grand Blanc, and the LPGA Tour plays for the first time since mid-February in Australia when it tees it up at the inaugural LPGA Drive On Championship at historic Inverness Club in Toledo.

These are the latest sports circuits to come back from the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely shut down the sports and entertainment industries in mid-March.

"The local Wisconsin paper, the sports section, I can read it in about 2½ minutes," Jerry Kelly, defending champion of the Ally Challenge, said with a laugh.

"I keep on telling everybody, we've been in the soup line for way too long.

"I'm just itching to compete."

That's basically the sentiment of all 81 players in the Champions Tour field and the 144 in the LPGA field, many of whom haven't played a significantly competitive round since before the pandemic took hold.

That'll change Friday, when both tournaments tee off for a three-round return to action.

"It's been the longest break I ever had in my 44 years of professional golf," said Bernhard Langer, 62, a two-time Masters champion. "Very unprecedented times.

"But I think everybody's doing the best they can, what we know about the virus and how to go about it.

"We're just excited to finally get started."

Bernhard Langer will compete in this weekend's Ally Challenge.

There wasn't always a guarantee the Champions Tour would restart, as has been the touch-and-go scenario with pretty much every sport. The PGA Tour had a mini-outbreak of positive cases early in its restart, but has since seemed to overcome that, thanks in part to some more frequent testing protocols and stricter rules as to what is acceptable and what isn't on and off the course, without any positives since the week of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club earlier this month. Major League Baseball, five games into its season, has a full-blown outbreak with the Miami Marlins, whose season has been at least temporarily suspended. MLB, the NBA, NHL and NFL have had several players decide to opt out of the 2020 season, including several stars.

The Champions Tour canceled 11 tournaments, including the Senior PGA Championship in May in Benton Harbor, but the Ally Challenge somehow survived, even though, like with pretty much all sporting events, there will be no fans.

Ally Challenge officials put together a plan for limited hospitality and some spectators, and presented the plan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office, but she denied it.

"They made the decision to stick by the current executive order, and we respect that and understand that," said Matt Stepnes, who was named tournament director in early February, just weeks before the sports shutdown.

"We've been working hard, pretty much from when the pandemic started, building seven to 10 different tournament scenarios.

"Everything changed, pretty much more than on a daily basis."

For the golfers getting back to work, there will be a familiarity that's more than welcome.

There also will be big differences, starting with the health and safety protocols. All players and caddies have to receive a negative result on a COVID-19 test before they're allowed on the course grounds, and volunteer and media personnel will be severely limited, as has been the case on the PGA Tour, including the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

More: Check out the first-round tee times for this week's Ally Challenge

The Champions Tour, of course, is a different animal when it comes to its restart, given its entire player base is 50 and older, putting many of them in the at-risk category for COVID-19 complications, should they get the virus.

It hasn't diminished the strength of the field at the Ally, where most of the biggest names are in Grand Blanc, with the exception of a few, including Fred Couples.

"I was definitely concerned," said Kelly, 53, who added his fears were alleviated earlier this month when he played at PGA Tour tournament in Dublin, Ohio, and went through the protocols there — protocols that are basically mirrored this week in Grand Blanc.

"I don't have those same concerns.

"I was really impressed with the bubble they put us in."

On the PGA Tour, the bubble is firmly under wraps, with no direct contact between players and anybody who hasn't been tested.

It's going to be a little less stringent this week at the Ally, where the Champions Tour will hold a pro-am tournament Thursday. The events are popular and huge money-makers on all tours, pitting big-money corporate folks with a professional golfer for 18 holes of schmoozing. The PGA Tour hasn't resumed pro-ams since the restart.

If there is a concern among the players, it's that, even though they know how important pro-ams are to the bottom line. Along with title, presenting and corporate sponsors, the pro-ams largely help pay for those oversized checks.

"I'm surprised by that, a bit," said Lake Orion's Tom Gillis, 52, who's in his third year on the Champions Tour, and is bopping around in a rented RV this week after making the trip with his wife and kids after making the trip up from their new home in Jupiter, Florida. "I'm not against it by any stretch. You're playing golf, so long as you're not hugging on the guy or touching players all the time, you should be all right.

"It's probably time to give it a shot."

The biggest difference, of course, will be the lack of fans. All major golf tours seem like they're play the rest of this season without galleries.

That means the par-3 17th at Warwick Hills — one of the rowdiest holes when the club hosted the PGA Tour's Buick Open, and still plenty spirited on the Champions Tour — will be stone-cold silent.

That's a huge adjustment for a guy like Kelly, who said he thrives on crowds and who won last year's tournament by two strokes over Woody Austin.

"It's a different planet," said Kelly, "without the fans."

Kelly, as an example, talked about the surreal scene at the Workday Charity Open at Muirfield Village on the PGA Tour earlier this month. It went into a playoff, and pretty much the only ones watching were other players who were done with their rounds, and were hanging out on the clubhouse patio. On the first playoff hole, Justin Thomas made a 50-foot birdie putt, and there was hardly a peep, except for Thomas' own fist pump and scream. Then, moments later, Collin Morikawa stepped right up and made a 24-footer for a birdie of his own, sending the playoff to the second hole; Morikawa ended up winning it on the third. With fans, there's no telling if Morikawa makes that first putt, given he'd have to wait several minutes for the buzz to die down.

With fans, players typically knew where there shots ended up. That's not the case now. At the Rocket earlier this month, Brian Stuard holed out for an eagle-2 on his first hole of the week, and hadn't a clue until he got to the green and looked in the hole. The lack of grandstands also is different, and definitely affects players' depth perception.

But, mostly, it's the vibe that's missed the most.

Mike Weir, a native of Sarnia, Ontario, will be competing in this weekend's Ally Challenge.

"It does have the feel of just kind of going out with your buddies," said Mike Weir, 50, a former Masters champion and suburban Sarnia, Ontario (across the bridge from Port Huron), native who is making his Champions Tour debut this week.

"I would rather have the energy of the crowd. When you get going, you can kind of really thrive off that.

"For me, I have to probably try to bring my energy up to match that, and that gets your attention better and your focus a little bit better when you're in that mode."

Said the always self-deprecating Gillis: "Half of my career has been with no fans, so it's not going to bother me at all.

Gillis added: "If anything, it probably helps me this week, with less distractions being near home. I played out there last week. For me, it's just like another day at Warwick."

The Ally Challenge will be the second and final high-level pro golf tour stop in Michigan this year, with the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Three of the five were canceled, including the Senior PGA Championship plus the two LPGA stops, in suburban Grand Rapids and Midland. The USGA also canceled the Senior U.S. Amateur at Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Farms.

The Toledo area benefited from all the LPGA Tour cancellations, with the Tour deciding to add a second stop there, at Inverness. The LPGA Tour will then play next week at the long-running Marathon Classic the following week in Sylvania, or suburban Toledo, at Highland Meadows Golf Club.

There have been no known positive tests this week out of Grand Blanc or Toledo.

"Let's hope we're all doing our part," said Langer, who added that the testing process puts him on "pins and needles" waiting for the results.

"And nobody's going to get sick while we're here."

Ally Challenge

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Grand Blanc

Purse: $2 million (winner: $300,000)

TV: All days on Golf Channel. Friday — 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday — 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday — 3-5 p.m.

Tickets: None; because of COVID-19, fans are t prohibited.

Defending champion: Jerry Kelly

LPGA Drive On Championship

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Inverness Club, Toledo

Purse: $1 million (winner: $150,000)

TV: All days on Golf Channel. Friday — 9:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday — 4:30-7 p.m. Sunday — 5-7 p.m.

Tickets: None; because of COVID-19, fans aren't prohibited.

Defending champion: Inaugural event

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984