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Bryce Miller: PGA Tour, Jim Nantz eye opportunity as golf returns from layoff
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Bryce Miller: PGA Tour, Jim Nantz eye opportunity as golf returns from layoff

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Jon Rahm hits on the 4th hole during the Farmers Insurance Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego on January 26, 2020.

Jon Rahm hits on the 4th hole during the Farmers Insurance Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego on January 26, 2020. (K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Golf is poised to tinker and test, like a caffeinated scientist in a lab coat hustling from beaker to Bunsen burner.

For five weeks, the PGA Tour will be played without fans because of lingering coronavirus concerns. Putts will fall amid the broader conversation of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the country navigates unprecedented times, golf sniffs opportunity.

When the Tour shakes off three months' worth of global pandemic cobwebs this weekend at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, it's keenly aware a national audience salivating for live sports awaits.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the game, for the PGA Tour," said Jim Nantz, lead golf anchor for CBS, during a conference call Monday. "They have a chance to go before a sports-starved nation and have a chance to create a wider fan base than it's ever had before.

"How do you do that? A lot of it has to be personality driven. We need to hear from the players. ... Make it more fun, more insightful. Bring us inside the ropes. Bring us inside their minds."

To CBS, no fans does not translate to golf unplugged. Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, said the network will approach some players about wearing live microphones during rounds.

There also will be an inside-the-ropes tent, jokingly referred to by Nantz as the "Confession Cam." Players can voluntarily pop in and answer a question left on a piece of paper in front of a remote camera with no one else around. Questions, McManus said, could range from what players have been doing the last three months to identifying keys for the remainder of the round.

That means more voices than ever on TV, counteracting the lack of voices around tee boxes and greens.

"How do you motivate yourself? How do you keep it all going without any atmosphere?" analyst and six-time major championship winner Nick Faldo said. "I kind of feel, embrace it. It's weird and wonderful.

"I think the players who can get on with it will kind of remember this as a time in their careers, 'Hey, wasn't that crazy what we did for five weeks?' "

Call it bunker business, as unusual. CBS will halve its normal tournament staffing on site to allow for social distancing. Nantz, who normally would huddle with five or six people in a tower above No. 18, will be solo.

Faldo, his tower-riding sidekick, will call the action half a country away in Orlando, Fla. The analyst said he Googled the distance between the two locations, indicating that instead of being 6 feet away it translates to about 6 million feet away.

"I hope you feel safe," Faldo joked.

Golf's new, evolving normal will work for some and face resistance from others. Talking to players with San Diego connections two weeks ago during a fundraiser at Fairmont Grand Del Mar illustrated the mixed bag.

No one wants the heat of the moment to spark public-relations heat.

"I think we'd have to have some serious control over that because something could come out accidentally out of your mouth that you didn't intend," Poway native Charley Hoffman said. "I think our sport is pretty good as it is."

Xander Schauffele, the San Diego State star who is 17 years Hoffman's junior, remains more open minded about being mic'd up.

"I've never done it, but I don't think it would bother me as long as I'm with the right crowd to bring the best out of me," he said.

Another intriguing element of golf's return will be the tenor and tone of comments about COVID-19 and the country's racial unrest. On one hand, it's a sports event. On the other, those topics influence everything.

That leaves Nantz, golf's premier voice, to define the balancing act.

"People are tuning in to watch a golf tournament, but I don't think we would be handling it properly if we didn't recognize that there is a lot going on in our country right now," Nantz said. "... I'm 61 years old and I consider this to be perhaps the most important moment in this county in my lifetime.

"We just have to get this moment in history right. We can't let this opportunity pass without real and meaningful progress when it comes to equality, diversity, justice, love and empathy - and I hope to express that."

So much remains uncharted. That makes golf's return compelling.

"Tournaments are going to be different with everyone being cautious and careful," said Jon Rahm, the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open winner ranked No. 2 in the world. "I'm curious to see how that's going to go. It's going to be different than what we're used to.

"It will be weird. I don't even know if we can hang out in the clubhouse."

Golf is writing its future without a script. That's good for the rest of us.

Time to grab the lab coat, test tubes and get to work.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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