By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Tiger Woods and the fans will be missing when golf returns this week after a three-month hiatus due to the novel coronavirus but the Charles Schwab Challenge will otherwise get the full major treatment with a strong field on display.
Led by world number one Rory McIlroy, the world's top five players and 101 PGA Tour winners will be at the stately Colonial Country Club outside Forth Worth, Texas.
Play starts on Thursday in the first tournament since the Players Championship was halted in mid-March by the pandemic.
With NASCAR, IndyCar and the UFC already back in action, the PGA Tour will become the latest North American sport to emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown.
But like the conditions surrounding those sports, golfers will be returning to a very different looking arena where social distancing and the results of nasal swabs and thermal scans will be as important as what they put on their scorecards.
The most jarring change will be the absence of galleries that would normally flock to any tournament featuring the world's best players.
Golf's biggest name and winner of 15 majors, Woods will be the only noticeable absentee in the elite field as he continues to get his game in shape after recovering from back issues.
Television coverage of the Charles Schwab will be extensive and have all the technological bells and whistles, including a few new features such as Augmented Reality technology virtual signage.
Some golfers will also wear microphones in an effort to liven up a subdued soundtrack.
Whatever technology or viewer-friendly gimmicks are rolled out they will not replace the familiar buzz that resonates across the course when a player holes out or drains a monster putt.
"The atmosphere will definitely be different," world number four Justin Thomas told reporters after a practice round on Tuesday. "But then again, everything is different than what we've been used to the last three months."
While the PGA Tour has put together a detailed protocol outlining in great detail what golfers can expect in the way of testing and procedure when they arrive at the Colonial, no one knows exactly what they will see when action gets underway.
Spain's world number two Jon Rahm, who was self-isolating in the United States while his family was quarantined in Spain, said he did not pick up a club for seven weeks.
South Korean Im Sung-jae, leader of the Fedex Cup standings, flew in his coach to his Florida base to keep him in shape.
"You're going to see definitely a wide variety of scores, not just because of the golf course but just to see who used their time well or not," said Thomas. "I sometimes feel rusty after two, three weeks off, let alone four months.
"That's going to be weird, but at the same time it's going to be weird for everybody, so I'm just going to hopefully try to get back into that as quick as I can."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)