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AP photo by David J. Phillip / Dustin Johnson walks to the 12th green at Colonial Country Club during Wednesday's practice for the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. The tournament, which starts Thursday, is the PGA Tour's first since The Players Championship was canceled after one round in mid-March as the coronavirus outbreak shut down organized sports.

FORT WORTH, Texas — The PGA Tour is not simply picking up where it left off.

Very little about the Charles Schwab Challenge, which starts Thursday at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, resembles the opening round of The Players Championship on March 12, the last professional golf played before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the PGA Tour and most organized sports.

Players return to a new set of rules, starting with mandatory tests for the coronavirus when they first arrive and having their temperatures taken before they can get to the parking lot. The PGA Tour said all 487 tests of players, caddies and essential personnel were negative.

On the course, players are to make every effort to practice social distancing and "show best practices for playing golf to our fans watching the telecast."

Good thing Wednesday's activity wasn't shown on TV.

Players and caddies exchanged clubs (players are supposed to handle the clubs themselves). Caddies were not wiping down the flagsticks or bunker rakes after use. Social distancing felt more like a guideline.

It was just like normal in a return that is supposed to be anything but that.

"It's going to be very easy to fall back into old habits because it's just what we've done," Rory McIlroy, the current No. 1 player in the World Golf Ranking, said Wednesday. "I'd say for the viewing public just to give the players and caddies a little bit of leeway if they see something on TV that isn't quite right. We're having to figure it out as we go along as well."

Of equal concern is what they do off the golf course, even with a designated hotel. Some are staying in houses. Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas have their own chef.

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AP photo by David J. Phillip / Dustin Johnson watches his tee shot on the 14th hole at Colonial Country Club during Wednesday's practice for the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas.

The most obvious difference is no spectators on the course, making Colonial look like it does for the members, except for ropes lining the fairway to give carts and mowers some guidance on where to drive.

Another difference is likely to be the number of people watching from home.

Golf is only the second major sport to return in the United States (NASCAR, IndyCar and other motorsports series are already in action), and a field featuring McIlroy, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka is appealing.

The field includes all three former Baylor School golfers currently on the PGA Tour: Harris English, who is No. 24 in the FedEx Cup standings, plus Keith Mitchell (75th) and Luke List (124th).

There also is the underlying responsibility to show that returning at this time was the right move — and that golf can live up to its reputation as one of the safer sports to play during a time when there is still concern about the spread of a new disease.

"I think this week is very important because golf will be the center of the sports world, which it usually a few weeks a year is," McIlroy said. "But for people to have something to watch on TV where they actually don't know the outcome I think is going to be nice for them. So I think that'll be a good thing."

"And I think it's an important week because golf can show that we can play in a socially distant manner," he said. "We can conduct a tournament and adhere to all the safety protocols that have been put in place."

Koepka made no apologies for working with caddie Ricky Elliott the way he always does, mainly because his caddie is staying with him this week and both have been tested.

"You look at any other sport," Koepka said. "I'm pretty sure LeBron James isn't going to worry about setting a pick. Football, you're not going to worry about tackling a guy because of social distancing."

But he recognized the importance of getting through this week without incident so that golf can continue until just short of Christmas.

"I think it's important to make sure that we go through all these things because I want to play," Koepka said. "I know everybody out here wants to play, I know the fans want to see us play, so we've got to take all those protocols seriously if we really want to be out here for the rest of the year."

And then there's the matter of birdies and bogeys.

McIlroy and Thomas are among those who have never played Colonial. Rahm has a mathematical chance of replacing McIlroy at the top of the World Golf Ranking. Koepka hasn't been the same since his knee injury late last year, and he believes the break did him a world of good. Jordan Spieth, playing in his native Lone Star State, can only hope the same holds true for him.

All are eager to return, even in silence.

Rickie Fowler hit a wedge to four feet from the seventh hole during a practice round, and a passerby called out: "Good shot. That will be the extent of feedback for the week."

Elite players hardly ever go this long without serious competition except for when injured, and while many have been playing at home in Florida, Texas or Arizona, it's close to impossible to replicate the real thing.

It will be real Thursday. Even without fans. Even if it doesn't look just like it did in March.

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