Golf Is Back, But The PGA TOUR Discovers The Coronavirus Hasn’t Gone Anywhere

Justin Thomas Comments on COVID
Photo: Courtney Cook/ Unsplash Photos

The PGA TOUR is sharing headlines with Major League Baseball, the NBA and college football—just not in the way it might have hoped. Are positive tests just the cost of doing business in the coronavirus-spawned “new normal?”

By Anthony Cotton

“I mean, no offense to Hilton Head, but they’re seeming to not take it very seriously. It’s an absolute zoo around here. There’s people everywhere. The beaches are absolutely packed. Every restaurant, from what I’ve seen when I’ve been driving by, is absolutely crowded.”

Justin Thomas at last week’s RBC Heritage.

Just days after Nick Watney was forced to withdraw from the PGA TOUR’s second event because of its first confirmed case of coronavirus, another player has tested positive. Cameron Champ withdrew from the Travelers Championship on Tuesday; Champ, who was tested during pre-tournament screening, did not play in last week’s event in South Carolina. After Champ’s announcement came word that veteran Graeme McDowell also with drew from the event because his caddie, Ken Combo, has tested positive.

“I’m just uncomfortable being here,” McDowell told Golfweek. According to Golfweek, McDowell was in a car for six hours with Comboy, driving from Orlando to Hilton Head last week, where they competed at the RBC Heritage. They roomed together in South Carolina, and then when McDowell missed the cut, they drove together back to Florida.
On Wednesday morning, Golfweek also reported that Brooks Koepka, the world’s No. 4 player, was also withdrawing from the Travelers after his caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive. Koepka played a practice round with McDowell on Tuesday.

While it’s not surprising that a player has tested positive, Watney’s case—and the above quote from Thomas—perhaps points out some holes in the tour’s policy regarding its approach to the virus. Some have questioned why Watney, who admitted he wasn’t feeling well, was able to return to Harbor Town to prepare for the second round of the tournament, even while awaiting test results. And, unlike the NBA, which plans to quarantine its players, coaches and staffs in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Florida, the PGA TOUR has not. At the first event, the Charles Schwab Challenge, players were “encouraged” but not required to stay in a tour hotel. Similarly, while there has been stringent testing at each tournament, there hasn’t been any mandates regarding the players’ comings and goings away from the course.

Hence Thomas’ alarm at life on the outside. The guess is that all the revelers Thomas was referring to didn’t care that there was a PGA Tour event in town—in a best case scenario, one can imagine they were just expressing their joy at re-entering life as they knew it pre-corona. Does that then, put the onus on the Tour to try and dictate how the players should navigate their actions each week? That’s not in keeping with how the Tour, which has long referred to players as “independent contractors,” has done things. And even it wanted to, who’s to say that it would be the right approach—the uneasiness is already rising in the NBA, because, while the players will be bubbled, the workers and staff attending to them at Disney, won’t be. Orlando isn’t likely as raucous as Hilton Head, S.C., but it’s not like science and modern medicine have a grasp on exactly how the virus works, let alone what circumstances are idyllic to stop it.

Every sports league wants to play its games—most fans are desperate for them to return to the courts, diamonds and gridirons. Golfers, Justin Thomas included, were some of the first people to return to the course after the pandemic. We love to revel in the comforting verbiage—we’re outside; we’re social-distance-friendly—on some level, we’ve accepted the bargain we’ve made with the game.

Nick Watney and Cameron Champ certainly have too—but with cases spiking upwards in numerous states, it would seem appear we haven’t moved beyond the first wave of the coronavirus. That would indicate that, until a cure—or at least a vaccine—comes around, chances are they won’t be the only players making headlines away from the course.

For another look at Nick Watney and the PGA TOUR’s coronavirus policies:

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