HILTON HEAD ISLAND — You know it’s a peculiar week in sports when Clemson football makes The Golf Channel’s coverage of the RBC Heritage.
Stranger still when one of the world’s best golfers, talking Hilton Head, slams the notion of “people everywhere.” Even with fans nowhere amid the lighthouse views and gator ponds at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Webb Simpson completing a 22-under par RBC Heritage on Sunday to beat perhaps the tournament’s best-ever field will look better in normal record books than “new normal” context.
This rescheduled RBC Heritage provided as much insight into a sports “bubble” — an ideal protected zone teams and universities want for athletes — as into golf its own self.
That’s because officials from other sports were closely monitoring the second PGA Tour event since a return from a 13-week absence while many struggled with their own coronavirus questions.
Major League Baseball amid pandemic spikes closed Florida training facilities. NBA players are having second thoughts about a Sunshine State restart.
News that 23 Clemson players tested positive was part of national coverage of a golf tournament elsewhere in a state setting new positive test records almost daily (while deaths nationally have fallen steadily).
When Nick Watney on Friday at Harbour Town became the first PGA Tour pro to test positive, Justin Thomas blamed the town.
“I mean, no offense to Hilton Head, but they’re seeming to not take it very seriously. It’s an absolute zoo around here,” the 2017 PGA Championship winner said. “There’s people everywhere. The beaches are absolutely packed.”
Thomas kept going.
“Every restaurant, from what I’ve seen when I’ve been driving by, is absolutely crowded,” said Thomas, 27. “So I would say it’s no coincidence that there’s got to be a lot of stuff going on around here.”
Thomas, who charged into contention Sunday with a 63, said he felt “very safe” within the PGA Tour bubble and on the golf course. He was staying in a rented house with a “small circle.” He hired a chef.
Bubble security suddenly is one of the biggest challenges in sports. At stake isn’t simply the health of players but that of older, obese and other high-risk family members when players temporarily opt out.
Taking Thomas’ comments apart shows how tough it is to maintain bubbles.
Yes. Bumper-to-bumper traffic for several miles on U.S. 278 from Bluffton into Hilton Head as the weekly Saturday evening tide of vacation renters flowed into resorts. All drivers arriving or departing must pay a $1.25 toll at booths, where only two of eight toll-takers were wearing gloves as a Charleston visitor passed through this week.
That’s a lot of loose change and fingers.
The “absolute zoo” thing?
Definitely at a large grocery store, where most people stocking up on vacation supplies were maskless despite a “PLEASE WEAR MASKS” electronic sign on U.S. 278.
“Absolutely packed” beaches?
Apparently with folks from out of state. A 25-vehicle license plate survey Saturday night within the crowded parking lot at the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa (on the way to the Holiday Inn Express in Bluffton): 4 from New Jersey; 3 each from Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina; 2 each from Georgia, Ohio and South Carolina; 1 each from Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Florida, Connecticut and Tennessee.
Send us your tired.
Your suburban Philly and Chicagoland potential virus spreaders.
It’s as hard to tell large and small business owners in a given town to bag tourist season as it is to get non-mask wearers to explain their selfish selves.
Restaurants? Loaded with people who didn’t book private chefs.
Tour pro Carlos Ortiz said he attempted to dine out a few times in Hilton Head but changed his mind after seeing large crowds.
Indeed, reservation takers at Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana and Ombra Cucina Italiana reported busy nights Saturday, and there was a long line for a carryout small veggie with extra cheese at one of Hilton Head’s other fine Italian establishments, Domino’s.
Limiting media coverage for safety reasons was just part of the great job the RBC Heritage people did in staging a tournament out of its comfort zone.
June dates, 154 players, warmer weather and soft Bermuda grass replaced postponed April dates, a standard 132-player field, cooler breezes and the typical ryegrass overseed of spring.
This latest South Carolina win for Simpson, who went to Wake Forest on the Arnold Palmer Scholarship, goes with victories at Charleston's prestigious Azalea Invitational in 2004 and 2007.
Hopefully, Harbour Town made new ambassadors of guys who hadn’t played here or were making a rare appearance.
“We wish we could have presented a little more Southern hospitality with our usual carving stations and omelette stations for the players instead of grab-and-go food,” tournament director Steve Wilmot said. “But hopefully they’ll get a sense of how special this place is.”
The crush of tourists enjoying Southern hospitality all over the island and how that impacts virus concerns, the RBC Heritage can’t control that.
Thomas said as much.
It was hard to look anywhere at Harbour Town without seeing hand sanitizer.
But as Nick Watney and Clemson football players and Major League Baseball know, there is only so much you can do to keep your bubble from bursting.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.