- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
Amid concerns that the tournament might be canceled in the wake of more positive coronavirus test results and the withdrawal of several high-profile players who do not have COVID-19, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan on Wednesday sat behind a computer monitor at the Travelers Championship and conducted a virtual news conference during which he attempted to calm the masses while also issuing some strong reminders that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon.
There have been four positive tests across three weeks on the PGA Tour, none of which apparently emanated from a tournament site. The players, Nick Watney and Cameron Champ, are self-isolating, as are caddies Ricky Elliott and Ken Comboy. Elliott caddies for Brooks Koepka, who withdrew from the Travelers Championship. So did Graeme McDowell, whose caddie is Comboy.
Koepka’s brother, Chase, also withdrew, as did RBC Heritage winner Webb Simpson.
That understandably created a big wave of panic in the golf world, especially at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut.
Monahan attempted to quell that by pointing out that the PGA Tour has conducted 2,757 COVID-19 tests across its two tours with seven positive results and just two players.
Here are a few takeaways from a tense day in golf:
The show will go on
Monahan stressed that positive tests were inevitable.
“We knew it was impossible to eliminate all risk,” Monahan said.
To that end, the tour is willing to try its best to mitigate that risk with weekly testing, various protocols and reminders that the pandemic is something all will have to live with as tournaments follow.
“We feel like we’re on a path that’s going to allow us to continue to sustain our return to golf, but rest assured, there will be many sleepless nights,” he said. “When you’re working in a world of uncertainty, these are the things you worry about. But also rest assured the PGA Tour will always do the right thing as it relates to our players, our fans, our constituents and make sure we create the safest environment possible.”
The tour lost millions in television rights fees and sponsorship fees during a 13-week shutdown. It is spending millions more to get back on track, including administering some 500 COVID-19 tests per week and paying a stipend to anyone who tests positive and must self-isolate.
“We are just going to continue to refine and get better and better and identify ways where we can further mitigate any risk,” Monahan said.
A need for more protocols
Monahan announced that there would be added testing for those who take the tour-led charter flights each week, to include another round of testing after arriving at the tournament venue; that coaches would now be tested as part of the tour’s bubble; that the tour’s fitness trailers will be on site to keep players from visiting local gyms; and that those who don’t follow the various protocols will not be eligible for a tour stipend to cover costs associated with isolating following a positive test result.
Here’s another one the tour should consider: Do not let any player, coach or caddie onto the tournament grounds until their mandated test is returned positive. Both Watney and Champ went to the golf course while awaiting test results. The current rules do not allow entry to the clubhouse or locker room, but players are still allowed to show up and practice. That is a bad idea.
It speaks to the need to get quicker tests. But if they come back slowly and a player must wait, so be it. These are extraordinary times. What is the point of not knowing where you stand in that moment and then heading to the golf course where you can come in contact with dozens of people? If it means arriving at the tournament site on Monday in order to get into the golf course by Tuesday, perhaps that is part of the sacrifice in these times.
There will be repercussions
Monahan said there are penalties he can impose if players and caddies violate the various policies and recommendations. For example, social distancing has been mostly nonexistent at the course. Players, caddies and officials are often in close contact. Monahan admitted that testing has sometimes given a false sense of security.
But like a player can face penalties for various breaches of etiquette or tour guidelines, the same applies to this situation.
“For any individual that does not, there will be be serious repercussions, and I’m not going to get into the specifics of it,” Monahan said. “But everybody knows and needs to know that our future, our ability to sustain this business and to impact the communities where we play and to create so many jobs is contingent on our ability to follow those protocols.
“So when we have instances where someone hasn’t, they will be dealt with, and as I said, the consequences will be significant.”
This is not easy to enforce. Is it repeated violations of social distancing guidelines? Is it congregating too much at the course or on the driving range? Can Monahan impose penalties if it is learned that a player or a caddie visits a crowded restaurant or bar?
What about going to a funeral or some other crowded place away from tournament golf?
As for penalties? It is hard to envision a suspension, unless it reaches the level of repeatedly poor behavior. So we are probably talking fines.
Monahan would not answer the question of what it would take for him to cancel an event. It seems tour officials simply do not want to consider that possibility, or at least not get specific about it publicly. Monahan won’t offer a number of positive cases as some sort of demarcation line. And as mentioned previously, millions of dollars are at stake each week; the tour wants these events to take place.
“I think there are certainly scenarios where if you had a significant number of positive tests, or you could play scenarios where that would come into play and you’d have to be thinking along those lines,” Monahan said. “But for us, we’re confident with the plan we have and we are very hopeful that we are not going to be in that position.”
Next month … spectators
The Memorial Tournament, scheduled for July 16-19 in Dublin, Ohio, is to be the first tournament with spectators. And nothing so far has given event organizers or the PGA Tour any reason to pause.
“It reminds us we have to make sure we do it right,” said Dan Sullivan, executive director of the Memorial Tournament. “A lot of people are very confident in the plan we have put together outside of our organization including the governor, state of Ohio health officials. It reminds us we have to follow the plan. It’s given us the reality that every day means we have to refine the plan.”
The plan includes no grandstands or bleachers, spectators entering wearing a mask, no shuttle buses, and nuisances to deal with restrooms and concessions. The Memorial will also be the first event to return with a pro-am on the Wednesday prior to the tournament.
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