GILBERT, Ariz. — Parking was at a premium on a seasonably sunny day at Western Skies Golf Club. Whizzing golf carts, hopeful thwacks on the range, the clickety-clack of spikes and the splash of a fountain contributed to the relaxing vibe. Freshly grilled meat and the unmistakable stench of a cigar penetrated the air.
Yet, this was anything but business as usual on a Thursday in mid-March.
If the visual of participants of a small private outing sanitizing their steering wheels didn’t serve as enough of an example of this unprecedented time, seeing pro golfers compete at an event on the Outlaw Tour — a four-year-old developmental circuit based in Arizona that shared the course for three days — was also an oddity. After all, other tours, including of course the PGA TOUR, have canceled tournaments.
“We discussed it,” said Western Skies Classic tournament director Jesse Burghart, an Arizona native and composed presence for the competitors. “There are a lot of players who still wanted to play in something. We felt like, if the golf courses were open and we took the necessary precautions, it was still OK to go ahead. Ultimately, it’s the player’s decision to tee it up.”
So, 56 players competed in the 54-hole tournament on a modified par 70 tipping at just 6,656 yards. Thirty-three survived the 36-hole cut, of which 18 cashed. On this Thursday, the winner would be crowned.
Burghart implemented numerous safeguards to eliminate the threat of transference of the COVID-19 virus and other pathogens. Water in a cooler and tees were not made available. It was agreed that no one would shake hands. Some golfers opted to walk to promote social distancing. (Walking will be required for all tournaments in the foreseeable future.)
Canada’s Wil Bateman, a lefty who plays the PGA TOUR Latinoamérica (where he’s won once, in 2015) emerged with victory in a three-way playoff with birdie on the first extra hole. In compliance, only fist bumps were shared thereafter.
It was an experience that challenged restraint, which isn’t easy for mostly 20-somethings on the Outlaw Tour, but there was no such governor on scoring at Western Skies.
Heavy rain that suspended play in Wednesday’s second round left the short course vulnerable for the finale. In addition to a pair of 60s, a 61 and two 62s (including Bateman’s second of the tournament), Jared du Toit made history with a bogey-free 59. The first-ever sub-60 on the Outlaw Tour featured one eagle and nine birdies.
“Honestly, I didn’t think about it too much until late,” du Toit said before losing in the playoff that also included 36-hole leader Carson Roberts. “Brandon [Harkins, who shot 60] and I were going back and forth, like all day. He had the upper hand on me for most of it, and I got hot late. All of a sudden, I thought, ‘This is a par 70 and I’m at nine
with a couple to play. I got a good chance.’
“I had a good look on 17. I was mad at the time – it didn’t go in – because I would have loved to have been able to par 18, but I got away with my tee shot. It finished close to the cart path. Had 105 yards in and hit a wedge to 6-7 feet and made it.”
For du Toit, a 24-year-old native of Calgary, Alberta, who medaled at the PGA TOUR Latinoamérica’s qualifying tournament in Mexico in January, it wasn’t the first time he’s made headlines. At Glen Abbey Golf Club in the 2016 RBC Canadian Open and competing as an amateur, he sat one stroke off Brandt Snedeker’s 54-hole lead before finishing in a four-way tie for ninth.
Du Toit’s memorable achievement piggybacked yet another on the mini-tour.
The week prior, two-time LPGA major champion Anna Nordqvist became the first female to compete on the Outlaw Tour. Proving her spot in the Moon Valley Classic in playing from the same tees (7,215 yards) as the guys, she co-led when she opened with a bogey-free, 8-under 64. She’d finish T28. (The same week as the Western Skies, Nordqvist prevailed on the Cactus Tour, also at Moon Valley Country Club.)
Harkins, a former PGA TOUR member who finished T4 at Western Skies – he also won the Outlaw Tour’s Papago Winter Classic in early December – currently is 11th in points on the Korn Ferry Tour. He lives locally and hopes to play as much as he can but acknowledged that making plans isn’t easy.
It’s a reality to which everyone can relate.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” he said. “We really don’t quite know [what’s next]. No one really knows.
“I’m really good friends with [PGA TOUR member] Joel Dahmen. We were just talking about it last night at dinner. He’s like, ‘Man, I don’t know what to say.’ He doesn’t know what he’s going to do on TOUR. Likewise for me. I guess, just wait to see what happens these next few weeks.”
Harkins arguably was the most notable in the field at Western Skies, but other recognizable surnames peppered the tee sheet. They included Thomas Lehman, Eric Hallberg and Sam Triplett, sons of Tom, Gary and Kirk, respectively, winners of a combined 11 PGA TOUR events and 21 tournaments on the PGA TOUR Champions. Both Tom and Gary were on site supporting their boys. Tom also backed the decision to keep playing.
“I think it’s a really safe thing to do,” said the senior Lehman. “Golf kind of has a built-in, social-distancing concept. You don’t get inside the other player’s space. You can play a round of golf with people and you don’t get up close and personal.”
“I saw a doctor on television saying, ‘Golf is one of the safest things you can do. I would encourage you to do it because sunshine and heat are things that work in our favor with this virus.’ Exercise always does.”
The 1996 PGA TOUR Player of the Year, ’96 Open champion and one-time top-ranked golfer in the world plans to play a lot of golf as the industry muscles through the crisis, but he hasn’t lost focus on what matters most – to keep living.
“I think it’s a really good time to accomplish a lot of things you’ve always wanted to accomplish, whether personally or professionally or within the family,” Lehman added. “It’s a great time because we’re kind of forced to slow down.
“So, that’s one thing I’m really excited about, actually, is having at least eight weeks to be able to accomplish some of these things I’ve always wanted to do but never really had the chance and the time to do it.”
Not that succeeding at one’s profession, while still possible, takes a back seat, however.
In between FaceTimes with friends and family en route to his vehicle in the still-packed lot, an enthusiastic Bateman expressed what it means still to have the chance to achieve. While his original plan to return home later in April may be modified, and as we all live in uncertainty, no one ever will be able to take away his title at the Western Skies Classic.
“Every day, I wake up and I’m able to come to the golf course and play,” he said. “I just feel like it’s just an opportunity. Seems to me that when I’m out there, with all of this stuff going on, it’s a place to just stay calm.”
That’s what any tournament director wants to hear. In fact, if early indications are accurate, the Outlaw Tour will be a destination for a number of familiar faces to stay sharp.
“I have some friends that play the PGA TOUR and the Korn Ferry Tour that I’ve gotten to know the last few years,” Burghart said. “They’ve reached out to me, asking if we were going to continue to play. So, we will most likely start to see a few of them enter our next few fields.”