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'A big responsibility': Charity match aims to set standard amid pandemic

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Televised golf returns in the United States on Sunday with caddies barred from the course and a barrage of screening measures plus organisational changes to ensure the players observe social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy teams up with Dustin Johnson to take on American duo Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff for a $3 million charity skins match, one of the rare live sports events available as golf adapts to the COVID-19 era.

“We have a big responsibility,” American Johnson told reporters on Thursday. “Everyone is going to be watching what we’re doing, so I think it’s very important for us to do it all correctly.”

All the participants at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida, will have been tested and then subjected to screening when they arrive at the venue, with the PGA Tour mandating social distancing throughout the event.

Players will not be able to have any contact with each other - ruling out handshakes and high fives - and although they do not have to wear masks during play, they must put them on off the course when social distancing is not possible.

Bunker rakes have been removed from the course and everyone on the property will be given sanitizer and sanitary wipes.

Without caddies, competitors will also have to carry their own clubs.

“I haven’t carried my own bag since I can’t remember when,” said Johnson, who will play without his longtime caddie, his brother Austin. “Feel like I’m in good enough shape to carry my bag around for 18 holes without it being a problem.”

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The event, which will benefit COVID-19 relief efforts, comes amid upheaval in the professional sports calendar, with three of the golf’s four majors rescheduled and the British Open cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Fowler, the runner-up at the 2018 Masters, and 21-year-old Wolff, who got his first PGA tour win last year, are widely considered the underdogs against 2016 U.S. Open winner Johnson and four-time major champion McIlroy.

“We’ll take the underdog spot but -- when that day comes, basically it’s a toss-up on who’s got the hot putter, and could be just a battle throughout the day,” said Fowler.

“We’re going to go tee it up and try and beat up on each other as bad as possible but have some fun.”

The PGA Tour is set to resume next month in a fanless setting for the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, with players and caddies facing a host of tests.

Asked how he would feel returning to competition in June, the 35-year-old Johnson said, “Everything is going to be weird.

“It’s going to be so different for us from what we’re used to,” he added. “I haven’t really thought about what the weirdest thing will be, but it’s all just going to be different.”

Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Ken Ferris

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