Players were ordered to keep two metres apart and there was no touching the flagsticks without gloves as women’s professional golf returned post-coronavirus in South Korea on Thursday.
Spectators were barred from the Lakewood Country Club as the KLPGA Championship, a domestic tournament, got under way with world top-10 players Park Sung-hyun, Kim Sei-young and Lee Jeong-eun in the field.
In an unusually quiet round in Yangju, northeast of Seoul, none of the trio could break par, with Park and Lee carding one-over 73s and Kim 74. Joint leaders Bae Seon-woo, Kim Char-young and Hyun Se-lin all shot 67.
The tournament, normally overlooked outside South Korea, is the first high-level women’s golf to be played since the US-based LPGA suspended its season in February.
With sports fans around the world long deprived of live action, rights have been sold to broadcasters in countries including the US, Canada and Australia.
“Interest is very high since this is the first golf tour in the world amid the pandemic,” the KLPGA said in a statement.
To avoid any coronavirus infection, players were advised to keep two metres (six feet) apart on the course and minimise physical contact, while touching the pin without gloves was prohibited.
Players also had to wear masks before and after their rounds, but could choose whether or not to do so during play — with most deciding against.
Apart from the host broadcaster, media were restricted to the first and 10th tees, with personnel required to wear face masks at all times.
“I was surprised to see so many camera crews at the first tee, feeling as if I was seeing a gallery,” Park said.
“From the second tee, it became all quiet and you could hear every little sound,” she added. “It felt a little boring, yet refreshing.” South Korea is a hothouse for women’s golfing talent, with eight players in the current world top 20.
Park, the world number three and a double-major winner, sixth-ranked Kim — a nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour — and number 10 Lee Jeong-eun are part of a 150-strong field chasing the $180,000 winner’s cheque from a tournament-record purse of $2.5 million.
Bae, one of the first-round leaders, only completed two weeks of self-isolation six days ago following her arrival from Japan.
Playing without fans was a “pity”, Kim Sei-young said after her pre-tournament practice.
“Usually a lot of fans show up, more here in Korea than in the US,” she said. “But I’m thankful for just even being able to play.”
Everyone entering the course had their temperature checked and had to provide their personal information.
Players also have to eat their meals alone to maintain social distancing, with no caddies or family members allowed to sit at the same table in the lounge.
The tournament comes after South Korea — which endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the disease outside mainland China but has brought it under control with a widespread “trace, test and treat” programme — saw professional football and baseball resume last week, also behind closed doors.
Only four LPGA Tour events have been completed this year — the last in Adelaide in February — but the tour has outlined plans to resume in mid-July in Michigan.
The men’s US PGA Tour, which came to a juddering halt when the Players Championship was abandoned after the first round in March, has pencilled in a restart behind closed doors at the Charles Schwab Challenge beginning June 11 at Fort Worth, Texas.