YANGJU, South Korea: Players were ordered to keep two meters 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 underway 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 KLGPA said in a statement.
To avoid any coronavirus infection, players were advised to keep two meters (six feet) apart on the course and minimize 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 N0. 3 and a double-major winner, sixth-ranked Kim — a nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour — and No. 10 Lee Jeong-eun are part of a 150-strong field chasing the $180,000 winner’s check 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.