A trip of a lifetime becomes an escape from the Coronavirus for Colorado PGA’s Doug Rohrbaugh
By Bob Denney PGA Historian
Doug and Karla wearing surgical masks in a train station in Guangzhou, China - Jan. 23, as they left for Thailand.
Years from now, PGA Professional Doug Rohrbaugh may find a way to chuckle about how prophetic he was when he and his wife Karla departed the cozy confines of Snowmass Club in Colorado to teach golf for six months in southern China.
The timing couldn’t have been better for the couple’s dream trip. They had two grown sons and Karla had retired from a career in dental hygiene. “Let’s do this. It’s an adventure,” said Rohrbaugh, adding, “Whether we like it or not, let’s do it.”
What followed the Rohrbaughs’ arrival Oct. 25 at the Tongtai Sports Club in Guangzhou - some 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong – was an emotional rollercoaster. It began with a planned side trip to Thailand and evolved into an impromptu trek west around the world to escape the tentacles of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Doug, a 57-year-old five-time Colorado PGA Senior Player of the Year, is in the 312-player field for the 53rd PGA Professional Championship, April 26-29, in Austin, Texas. However, competing was the last thing the Carbondale, Colorado, resident was worrying about the past 40 days.
Survival was paramount.
The couple scheduled leisure time in Thailand on the exotic isle of Koh Samui, about an hour flight south of Bangkok. But getting there before the Chinese New Year (Jan. 25), when travel throughout out Asia gets busy, wasn’t easy. With airline seats scarce, the Rohrbaughs had to first take a subway, then a train to Hong Kong, before boarding a flight on Jan. 23.
By then, Karla had heard reports of trouble traveling in and out of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus, 10 hours north of Guangzhou. She’d taken classes on pandemics, and was following the news, which reported nearly 600 cases of the virus.
“Twenty-four hours later, as we boarded a car on the subway, I would guess 90 percent of the passengers were wearing surgical masks,” said Doug. “Overnight, the people in China reacted immediately.”
The Rohrbaughs wore their masks all the way to the airport. Two days later in Thailand, Karla said to Doug, “This isn’t getting better; It’s only getting worse.“
The next day, Jan. 26, during breakfast, Karla said to Doug, “If we go back (to Guangzhou), we may never get out.”
“As things turned out,” said Doug, “it was the greatest decision she ever made. Thank goodness I wasn’t my typical stubborn self and listened to her. We made plans to go west.”
By Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a public health emergency.
Heading away from Asia, the Rohrbaughs traveled for two weeks through southern Europe, beginning in Rome, through Italy, Spain and then Portugal. As they visited Europe, Guangzhou was under lockdown.
“I’ve got Chinese friends who haven’t been able to leave their apartments for three weeks,” Doug said on Feb. 16. “One family member is allowed to leave every three days to go to the grocery store and must wear a surgical mask.
“I have a New Zealand friend who is going bonkers. I can hear it in his voice. He’s trying to do exercises in his apartment. He had to go to Hong Kong, get money out of his retirement account and came back to Shenzhen. Little did he know that he is stuck now. We are not seeing all that on the news here.”
On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, the Rohrbaughs flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Chicago. Amazingly, they were not questioned about their time in China.
“We were very disappointed,” said Doug. “We had been gone for three weeks from China. My passport has a Chinese visa, the guy (immigration official) looked at my picture page and the scan of my passport. He said, ‘OK, you are good to go’ and never opened another page in my passport.
“We were prepared to help the authorities. If we should be quarantined, we were ready. That was discouraging. I didn’t necessarily feel lucky, I felt like… really?”
The Rohrbaughs landed in Seattle and then traveled to Doug’s parents’ home in Portland, Oregon. Their home in Colorado is being rented until May.
“We were fortunate to leave when we did. Not too many people had left at that point due to the Chinese New Year,” said Doug. “People were still on their vacations when the outbreak occurred.
“I was about to cancel playing the PGA Professional Championship, because I didn’t expect to be back in time to play. But, I am back now and able to practice.”
But getting out of China as quickly as they did have some consequences. “I am sad that I cannot get my putter back,” Doug said. “I had an original TaylorMade Rossa Spider. I loved that thing. It’s irreplaceable.”
There’s a footnote to this story, one that doesn’t involve the coronavirus but still an introduction to coping with danger in an unstable world.
On Aug. 11, 1976, Doug was a 14-year-old student and part of a 15-person Middle Eastern tour group returning from Israel to Istanbul’s Yesilkoy Airport. Doug’s father, Richard, a former Presbyterian minister and later a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, was guiding the tour.
After the group landed, as they were being transported by bus to the terminal, pro-Palestinian guerrillas attacked, throwing grenades and Molotov cocktail bombs and firing submachine guns at a line of passengers waiting to board a second bus for a jetliner bound for Tel Aviv.
“My mom, sister and I were on the trip and we landed in Istanbul,” Doug recalled. “Two terrorists were coming through security. They attacked the second busload of passengers. We were on the first bus. Security rushed in and returned fire.
“I instinctively hit the floor and hid behind a baggage turnstile,” said Doug. “Machine gun bullets were hitting the wall about three feet above me. A security officer was above me, shooting back.”
Four persons were killed and at least 20 wounded, including one person in Rohrbaugh’s group, who suffered a bullet wound to the foot.
Over four decades later, Doug said that the experiences he’s had in life – harrowing or not – haven’t changed him. “I don’t get too stressed to be honest,” he said. “I don’t let things bother me. Only thing that you can control is to go or not to go.”
Doug Rohrbaugh’s path to professional golf had its own twist of fate, but luckily, it wasn’t life-threatening.
Although he tried golf while in high school, Rohrbaugh was a placekicker/safety in football when he enrolled at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon. He hoped to earn an athletic scholarship and become a pilot. While there, state funding was trimmed, and the football program shut down. A friend suggested Doug to try golf again.
“Once I got that encouragement by my friend, I was hooked,” he recalled. “I went home that summer, practiced every day and came back the next year as a 1 handicap. I earned No. 1 spot on the team. I ended up earning a golf scholarship to Idaho State.
“If they had never dropped the football program, where would I be today?”
Rohrbaugh knows how fortunate he and Karla were to be in a position to leave China. While in Thailand, they let their sons, Brandon and Tristan, and Doug’s parents know that they were out of harm’s way. And still Doug says, “I don’t regret it. I would do it again. It was an experience of a lifetime.
“The hardest thing for me is realizing what our friends in China are going through. I never got the chance to say, ‘good bye.’ “
That includes a female interpreter Doug and Karla got close to. “She was like the daughter that we never had,” said Rohrbaugh. “She became such a close friend to us.”
Today, Rohrbaugh uses online group chats to communicate with nearly 400 people overseas. “What amazes me is to see and hear how positive 99 percent of them are. I don’t think that level of quarantine could be pulled off in our country. I could easily see some folks saying to heck with this, I am not staying inside.
“What I know is that we were blessed.”
PGA of America
Experts on the business and game of golf. The best coaching tips and latest golf news delivered straight to you. Sign Up to get the latest.