On the heels of three positive COVID-19 test results during the Travelers Championship and five player withdrawals, the PGA TOUR, its players and caddies are making an increased commitment to safety measures in its Return to Golf.
“We all need to remind ourselves that we’re all learning to live with this virus,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a Wednesday press conference. “… It’s pretty clear that this virus isn’t going anywhere.”
Anyone needing a reminder received it loud and clear this week with the WDs of five players – Brooks Koepka and his brother, Chase; last week’s RBC Heritage winner Webb Simpson; and Cameron Champ and Graeme McDowell.
Of the five players, Champ was the only one who tested positive. The others were precautionary moves, with the caddies for Brooks Koepka and McDowell testing positive, and a family member of Simpson’s also testing positive. Chase Koepka, a Monday qualifier this week, opted to withdraw after playing a practice round with his brother and McDowell, even though neither he nor his caddie had tested positive. “I feel as if this is the best decision to keep all other players, caddies and volunteers safe,” he explained.
Although just seven of the 2,757 total in-market tournament tests (for both the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour) in the first three weeks have come back positive – a rate of 0.025% — safety, of course, remains the primary concern for those involved in staging and participating in PGA TOUR events. “It’s a low number on a percentage basis,” Monahan said. “But every number hurts.”
Thus, the TOUR is making adjustments to its testing protocols as well as other measures designed to strengthen the “bubble” and mitigate the risk of positive tests. Those adjustments include, but are not limited to:
• Those who travel via the TOUR-procured charter will be subject to the arrival testing procedures (nasal swab), in addition to the pre-charter test.
• Player instructors have been added to the on-site testing protocol (i.e. “the bubble”).
• Starting with next week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, the TOUR-sponsored fitness trailer will be on site in an effort to further control the environment where players interact. “One of the things that we’ve identified or we want to eliminate is players going to off-site gyms,” Monahan said. “Having our physio trailers here will help that. All of our players entering those physio trailers will be wearing masks.”
• The stipend policy has been updated to specify that a player will not be eligible if he has tested positive for COVID-19 after not following the safety protocols outlined in the Participant Resource Guide.
“All of us have an extraordinary responsibility to follow those protocols,” Monahan said. “For any individual that does not, there will be serious repercussions.”
In addition to the procedural adjustments, the PGA TOUR is supplying WHOOP fitness straps for all players, caddies and other essential personnel at upcoming PGA TOUR, Korn Ferry Tour and PGA TOUR Champions events. The WHOOP strap is a device that collects physiological data that helps an individual optimize workouts, recovery and sleep. Nick Watney requested a secondary test last week after concerns about his nighttime respiratory rate based on feedback from the WHOOP app; he subsequently tested positive and withdrew from the event.
The TOUR reached out to Will Ahmed, the CEO of WHOOP, to procure the straps; 1,000 devices will be initially distributed at the Travelers Championship and the Korn Ferry Tour’s Utah Championship this week.
“We greatly appreciate how willing and responsive Will has been in working with us to make the straps available on such short notice,” Monahan wrote in a letter to TOUR members. “He quickly mobilized his team to have product delivered to our tournaments and have staff available to assist with the distribution and education.”
Justin Thomas wears a WHOOP strap and reiterated the importance of closely monitoring the data.
“That’s an unbelievable thing that WHOOP and the PGA TOUR have done to make sure everybody is able to use that data like I do,” he said. “They can use it for other things, but during a time like this, knowing if something crazy changes, it’s very important because then it could end up detecting something before it really gets bad and end up potentially saving the TOUR like Nick did.”
Players Advisory Council (PAC) Chairman Charley Hoffman, in a letter to TOUR members this week, wrote that, “Despite our best efforts and prescribed protocols, occasional positive test results are inevitable. The fact that we have had so few speaks to the incredible job we have all done during quarantine and the return to play.” He added, though, that “there is substantial room for improvement, and we cannot let the ‘Bubble’ give us a false sense of security.”
The PAC has suggested to the TOUR that each tournament provide nightly dinner service in order to give players a safer option than going out to eat. Hoffman also reminded players to avoid physical touching before or after a round.
“There is no disrespect meant in avoiding these traditional interactions when we can simply remove our hats, look one another in the eye and thank each other for the day. No matter your personal opinion on the virus, we are now, more than ever, one big family and we must remain steadfast in our social distancing practices,” wrote Hoffman.
PAC member Jordan Spieth, in discussing the adjustments being made, said, “They’re minor adjustments because overall we’ve seen the system actually go very well so far, and until that changes, they’re going to be just little things that make it even safer and potentially … mitigate the risk.”
Scott Sajtinac, president of the Association of Professional Tour Caddies (APTC), also sent a letter to his membership to emphasize the importance of adhering to all protocols, including wiping down pins and rakes with wipes, as well as socially distancing both on and off the course and avoiding fist-bumping as an alternative to handshaking.
“No matter your thoughts on what is going on right now let’s all rally together and go the extra mile to ensure we do the right thing, so we continue to play,” Sajtinac wrote.
Thomas acknowledged that avoiding fist-bumps and other forms of contact has been a hard habit to break – but certainly a necessary one.
“We have to get better at that,” he said. “That’s something that’s unacceptable, and I’m guilty just as much, and once I kind of figured out I was doing it at Colonial tried to stop and got better at it last week and will continue to do so.
“The thing that’s most important is just everybody needs to do their part. … At the end of the day, just you can’t be selfish. It’s a big-picture thing, and you need to do not only what’s best for you but most importantly what’s best for the TOUR, because one mistake that someone makes could end up ruining other guys or potentially suspend the TOUR again. So I think that’s what the TOUR has done an unbelievable job of and really just making sure that everyone does the correct measures.”
Monahan said there have been conversations to “tighten things up” but said all involved have taken the responsibility seriously. “I don’t question that all,” he said.
“I think when you get into the environment of the tournament with no spectators here, with very few people here, with people that are around you having tested negative, I think over the first couple weeks, we’ve seen some instances where, let’s say we’ve gotten a little bit lax or away from protocol.
“Full disclosure: I’ve done it myself, and I think that’s the kind of tightening that we need to do in order to make sure we continue to be in a good position to move forward.”
Safely moving forward, of course, may mean further adjustments when necessary. For now, the TOUR is confident in the program and protocols currently in place.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Monahan said. “We are continuing to refine. … It’s all about trying to live in this world and be able to sustain your return in a world of COVID-19.
“I sincerely feel like we are on the right path in that regard.”
Source: PGA Tour Release, June 25, 2020