Marcus Hayes: Mesmerized by golf, NASCAR, and the return to real sports

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PHILADELPHIA — I don’t usually watch sports on TV. Never have, but then I’ve never really had to. I got all I needed live and in person.

But after nine weeks of lockdown, I was readier than I ever thought I could be. Last week I watched most of UFC 249, a few dozen innings of South Korean baseball, and even a little cornhole — all, to my mind, equally minor league endeavors.

They only whet my appetite. Michael Jordan and “The Last Dance” sparked nostalgia for five Sunday nights, but I was ravenous for live competition.

By the time the Bundesliga kicked off Saturday, I was an expert on soccer made in Germany. When Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson teed off against Matthew Wolff and Rickie Fowler (great with a goatee, awful with a mustache) for a skins game at Florida’s Seminole Golf Club on Sunday afternoon, I was perched, feet up, Coke on the table, popcorn in a bowl, like it was the Super Bowl. I even peeped NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway, after a long personal hiatus from auto racing, and saw Kevin Harvick win The Real Heroes 400. (Did you know they now post the laps run and the laps remaining? Brilliant!)

There were no fans in sight. It was bland. It was flavorless. And it was delicious.

When you’re a starving man, hamburger tastes like filet mignon; Ripple, like champagne.

For the first time since The Players Championship suspended play after the opening round of golf Thursday, March 12 we saw, this weekend, the best in the business do what they do best. There were no fans. The coverage was glitchy and threadbare; just six cameras scrambling to set up on every hole. The golfers had to carry their own bags, which, actually, was pretty satisfying, especially when DJ forgot his on the 18th tee.

From South Carolina to South Florida, it was far from perfect, from soup to lug nuts. Mike Tirico, a splendid interviewer, went too long in a Skype session with technologically impaired golf nut Bill Murray, and fielded an inappropriate phone call from Donald Trump. But Tirico was superb as usual, so at least we got Tirico.

That was part of what made Sunday so satisfying. Like Roger Goodell and the NFL draft last month, Sunday’s toe-dip back into big-time sports gave us a taste of normalcy. It reminded us what sanity feels like.

It wasn’t even as spooky as you might’ve expected.

If you’re a golf nerd like me, you watch a lot of the European Tour, LPGA Tour, and PGA Tour Champions. So, you’re used to watching live golf with virtually no fans. Similarly, for anyone who watched the Phillies in the late 1990s, empty seats at a ballpark is no big deal, even if it’s the Korean Baseball Organization, which has the best fans in sports. Oddly, Darlington Raceway came off eerier than any other venue, and speedways are places where fans are completely coincidental to the action. Go figure.

The NASCAR Cup Series will run again Wednesday night at the South Carolina track, with the Toyota 500, before heading to north to Charlotte Motor Speedway for another Sunday-Wednesday. I’ll watch.

Several cars promoted charitable causes, and each car sported the name of a healthcare worker on the door. The golf raised more than $5.5 million for COVID-19 relief. The players expressed appreciation for the frontline workers who have risked their lives every day during this pandemic.

PGA Tour Superstore CEO Dick Sullivan and Superstore owner Arthur M. Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons, each threw in a last-minute $100,000 pledge on the second longest-drive hole, No. 14, which meant that Wolff’s bomb was worth $350,000. He’d won the big-hitter $100,000 with his quirky, wound-up swing on No. 2, too. Fittingly, as the dimmest star of the foursome — he’s in his second season, while Johnson, McIlroy, and Fowler have combined for about $150 million in winnings — those swings were really his only contributions.

Other than his magnificent his tie-dyed Nikes.

I enjoyed the golf most. It was badly played. It was hard to follow, with only six cameras and remote commentators. It delivered a silly result — McIlroy won the bulk of the cash with one swing on the par-3 playoff hole — but the discussion of swing planes and putting strokes came as a welcome respite to the constant ( necessary) talk about face masks and social distancing.

Neither event was a primer for proper COVID-19 behavior. For guys who make their living knowing how far they are from everything, they couldn’t manage to stay 6 feet from each other. There wasn’t a mask in sight. Further, all 50 or so people involved in the NBC Sports production were tested for coronavirus — but then, asymptomatic testing is widely available in Palm Beach County, so any outrage should be mitigated. With testing still limited in many areas around the country, NASCAR has declined asymptomatic testing.

That won’t be the case if, as expected, the NBA and NHL resume their seasons in the next few weeks, or when Major League Baseball finally follows South Korea back onto the field.

Golf returns again Sunday, sort of, when Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady face Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning in “The Match: Champions for Charity,” an 18-hole sideshow that will raise at least $10 million.

The PGA Tour restarts properly June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, and the Masters all are scheduled to be played in the late summer and fall. None is expected to have fans.

They won’t be the same. They’ll be tofu burgers and gluten-free cookies.

But they’ll nourish us all the same.


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