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Austin's pro golfers go back to work as PGA restarts, leaving pandemic-era unofficial tournaments behind
The coronavirus pandemic shut down teams and leagues throughout the world and forced athletes to go home and wait until it was safe to compete again—professional golf was no exception.
Keeping in shape was made tougher, too, since gyms were some of the last businesses to reopen.
So what do you do if your future high-dollar paychecks are contingent on maintaining an ultra-fine physical edge?
Golfers based in Austin set up their own unofficial tournaments, using the city's plush courses. Men and women competed against each other. There were lots of practice rounds.
Some of the Austin golfers are back in action this week, playing in the Charles Schwab Challenge at the Colonial Golf Club in Fort Worth. It's the first PGA event since the tour shut down a round into the The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., March 12. That same day, the PGA also announced a cancellation of other spring tournaments, including the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.
If Andrew Landry, Beau Hossler or Dylan Fritelli do well in Fort Worth, it might be because of the unofficial tournaments Bob Estes, who is on the Champions Tour (formerly the Senior Tour) helped organize in Austin. Or keep an eye on Mark Brooks, a part-time Austin resident and former PGA star who will be caddying for his friend, J.J. Henry.
"I enjoy the challenge it presents and it's the best seat in the house if you don't have a tee time," Brooks posted on his Facebook page.
Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, also spent the pandemic in the Austin area. He tended to his young family and hit the golf course. Garcia is married to Angela Akins, the former Texas golfer who grew up in Marble Falls. Angela gave birth to the couple's second child, April 10. They announced the news of baby boy Enzo's arrival on Easter—what would've been the final round of the Masters.
Estes, whose next tournament on the Champions Tour starts July 31 in Michigan, helped organize some of the Austin events. He said the biggest gathering was a match play tournament won by Kristen Gillman, a second-year pro and the two-time U.S. Women's Amateur Champion who played at Lake Travis High School. Gillman was back in action last weekend, finishing third at the Texas Women's Open.
"It was pretty cool," Estes said. "There was no purse, no sponsors. You could do a little side bet if you wanted to. It was a structured tournament, all of us want to win it."
Rich Beem, who won the 2002 PGA championship, also spent more time in Austin because of the pandemic. COVID-19 curtailed two of his livelihoods. He's a golf analyst for Sky Sports, which is based in London. Beem probably won't be able to join Sky Sports again until July.
And he also was working towards his debut in the Champions Tour. He hits 50 in August, but said he likely won't be playing golf full time until October.
He kept his game in good shape competing against all the other pros who were sidelined here.
"It was a way for guys to get together, reconnect, play some golf," Beem said. "I think what the best players do is test themselves and they want to play against the best and see where they stack up. You've got to push yourself."
Beem also used his social media accounts to help raise money for the PGA's Golf Emergency Relief Fund. The fund was used to help out golf course pros or other employees who couldn't work because of the coronavirus.
The Schwab Challenge could be one of the most-watched golf tournaments of the year because it's the first in three months. The field expanded from 120 to 148 and every big name in golf outside of Tiger Woods is set to tee off Thursday morning.
Fans, however, won't be allowed on the course. It'll be televised, but the PGA severely restricted the number of journalists on the course, approving only 23 from 15 media outlets. Pre-pandemic, there would be more than 300 journalists.
The three-month break may favor another golfer with Austin ties, Jordan Spieth. He spent most of his time in Dallas during the pandemic, but as a former Texas Longhorn star, he maintains close ties to Austin. The former world No. 1 golfer now has plummeted to outside the top 50 and is hoping the mandated break will help his play in Fort Worth.
"I looked at it as a big-time opportunity for myself, and I didn't take it lightly," Spieth told reporters in Fort Worth. "I was certainly grateful for the time. Certainly it's not a positive situation in general, but for me personally, I tried to look at how I can make this an advantage to myself."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.