News & Opinion

Coronavirus and golf: Worst is yet to come

LPGA, European Tour and others canceled or rescheduled events, but all were in Asia, near the disease’s epicenter. To understand the potential effects on golf in the U.S., consider what could happen at next month’s Masters

ORLANDO, Fla. – How is golf handling coronavirus?

It’s a legitimate question as the number of cases in the U.S. grows, with no end in sight, and different areas of the country confront a public-health emergency.

The Masters
Masters fans ring a tee at Augusta National at one of the best-attended golf tournaments every year.

Washington has issued conflicting information on the virus, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s leading public-health agency, has been abundantly clear on the best course of action for Americans:

  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue into the trash.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects daily.

In trying to apply these guidelines to any golf tournament, compliance would seem to be almost impossible.
Consider someone who won a badge in the lottery to attend the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

The patron likely never has been to the tournament, and this is his or her shot to see Augusta National in person. Between now and April, which is seemingly forever into the future regarding the anticipated spread of coronavirus, it’s impossible to know with whom that person will come into contact or with whom those contacts in turn might come into contact.

On Tuesday, two schools in New York City were closed because the father of a student with coronavirus might have been infected. Because the student was in contact with other students at another school, that school was closed, as well.

If you overlay that reality with the gallery at the Masters or any other golf event, it becomes extremely problematic.

The number of sporting events canceled or postponed is too numerous to list. Golf has not been immune to the challenge, with three LPGA events in Asia canceled, two European events in April postponed, one event on the Japan LPGA tour having banned spectators and the PGA Tour delaying the start of its developmental China Series.

All of the events were in Asia, closer to the coronavirus epicenter in Wuhan, China, but how long before the virus will be prevalent enough in the U.S. that PGA Tour or LPGA events here will be affected?

Since 2002, at least eight potential pandemics have occurred around the world: 2002, West Nile virus; 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS; 2004, bird flu; 2005, E. coli; 2009, swine flu, 2014, Ebola; 2015, Disney measles; and 2016, Zika virus. The outbreaks resulted in significant loss of life and some worldwide economic disruption.

The most recent outbreak, Zika, prompted some of the best golfers in the world to skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where golf returned to the games after a 112-year absence.

The PGA Tour issued a statement on Tuesday saying that officials are “closely monitoring all available information related to the continued spread of the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19,” adding that “the health and safety of players, employees, fans, partners, volunteers and everyone associated with the PGA Tour continues to be our No. 1 priority.”

The Tour said it was “establishing additional protocols to promote the health and safety of all participants and fans at our tournaments, and we will regularly review our schedule in light of revised CDC and WHO reports and make any updates as necessary.”

The response from the PGA of America was similar regarding precautions ahead of its PGA Championship, which will be more in the crosshairs, at San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park in May.

Sources indicate that the PGA Tour also has issued procedures/guidelines to its tournaments that align with the CDC's suggestions: creating additional hand-washing stations and providing hand sanitizer, plus educating food-service workers and volunteers with best practices including knowing the location of first-aid tents.

Additional signage also will direct fans to hand-washing and hand-sanitizer areas, especially around entrance gates and where food and beverages are served.

The Tour also advised tournament officials to form a team of volunteers to ensure that hospitality, food-and-beverage and volunteer tents are kept clean and sanitized.

But regarding that hypothetical first-time visitor to Augusta, nothing that the PGA Tour is doing would stop that person, if symptomatic, from infecting individuals during Masters week. The only thing that could prevent the disease’s spread at Augusta is for that person not to go, if, in fact, he knew that he had come into contact with an infected person.

I’m not picking on the Masters. In reality, because it’s such a difficult ticket to obtain, this scenario really applies only to the season’s first major championship, which is set for April 9-12, and possibly the Ryder Cup on Sept. 25-27 at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. Golf fans fortunate enough to hold tickets to those events are more likely to attend regardless of how they might feel.

Calling for an outright cancellation of tournaments seems to be premature in early March, but if the doctors and scientists are right, a month from now the virus will be widespread in the U.S.

In an interview with NBC News, Dr. Anthony Fauci (pronounced FOW-chee), the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “We’re dealing with clearly an emerging infectious disease that has now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions.”

With nine deaths and more than 100 infections in the U.S., the outbreak might seem to be relatively small among Americans. However, because of a scarcity of test kits, fewer than 1,000 patients have been screened for the virus in the U.S. South Korea, by comparison, has tested more than 30,000 and even implemented drive-through screening. The U.K. also is working on a similar drive-through test. There is no vaccine nor any known cure for the respiratory ailment.

It all adds up to a lot of uncertainty looking ahead to next month’s Masters.

To suggest that anyone who travels to Augusta is at risk is a fair assessment, but it will be true for all other golf events, as well. The popularity of the Masters could cloud people’s judgment as to whether they should attend or not.

Estimates of the mortality rate from coronavirus are reportedly much higher than death from the flu, which has averaged about 0.1 percent for the past 10 years. Officials won’t be able to pinpoint coronavirus numbers until the number of infections can be finalized.

So, in the end we are left with washing our hands often and vigorously, not touching our face and coughing into a tissue or elbow and hope we don’t run across a symptomatic person.

This week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational was scrambling to pull together as many portable hand-washing facilities and hand sanitizers to supplement those regularly on the grounds.

Officials also are working with local health-care provider Orlando Health to add services. Ultimately, the tournament can do only so much. The responsibility lies with each individual to be diligent.

Hopefully, that person with a Masters badge will think of the big picture, as well as any fan, volunteer or employee every week on the numerous tours around the country.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.