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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With a taste of MLS play under their belts, Austin FC is entering the second half of a scoreless inaugural match.
The club has been given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
The two breaks aside, Austin FC has been holding their own against the match favorites. In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team has been quick and intense, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. ATXFC has also kept about equal possession with LAFC, although their shot attempts haven't been quite as nervewracking as the home team.
LAFC has given goalkeeper Brad Stuver some scares with 11 shot attempts, four of them on goal. By contrast, Austin FC has had five shots on goal.
LA has pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense isn't as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and defensive midfielder Alex Ring has shown the qualities that make him captain as he leads his teammates through their first ever match.
Will Austin FC win against the odds? It's tough to tell, but Austonia will keep you updated!
It's matchday! Austin FC—Austin's first major league sport team—kicks off its debut season in Los Angeles today after years in the making. We know how much this means to our beloved city and are taking you along with us as we journey to LA!
Austin FC writer Claire Partain and I are excited to bring you game-day coverage straight from the City of Angels. Check back here for updates, and visit our socials: @austonianews for the latest.
5 p.m: Kickoff!
It's finally here! Claire will be updating Austonia's Twitter account live. And we'll post her game recap after the game. Best of luck Verdes!
4:40 p.m: Excitement radiates back home
Watch parties are in plenty supply back home. Austonia's Laura Figi visited Circle Brewing Co. and found a crowd of excited supporters.
4:20 p.m: Austin FC supporters are in the stadium
Although the Banc of California Stadium is hosting the match at limited capacity, we see some green in the stands ahead of kickoff. Just moments away from the Austin FC's debut!
~3:20 p.m: Austin FC's team bus enters the stadium grounds
With a warm welcome from Los Verdes, Austin FC players were welcomed into the Banc of California Stadium.
~1 p.m: Los Verdes in LA
(Rigo Rodriguez/Los Verdes)
Austin FC supporters are making their presence known in LA, including the Los Verdes group.
Los Verdes members started having match-day fun around the area this morning with brunch. We'll be joining them about an hour before the game outside the stadium to share some of their excitement. We'll post immediately to Austonia's Instagram.
11:45 a.m: We landed!
View from hotel room where we're staying; the stadium digital sign can be seen in the right corner. (Sonia Garcia/Austonia)
Switching over to pacific time, we're here and it's almost like no time went by. It's 9:45 a.m. here.
We've been in contact with Los Verdes, an Austin FC supporter group, who is also here in LA counting down to kickoff.
8:20 a.m: LA bound
Like many of you, we've been looking forward to this moment for, let's just say, a very long time. Today, we woke up bright and early, headed to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and hopped on a flight to LA.
A gloomy day in Austin with a very quiet airport, we're headed to sunny skies in California.
As we wait for the game to start at 4:30 p.m., check out Claire's preview of the game with a predicted lineup and timeline of the long journey to get here.