News & Opinion

Smokescreen clears, so PGA Tour players rush back to work

Jordan Spieth 2020 Pebble Beach
Jordan Spieth, who declined to play in the 2016 Rio Games because of ‘health reasons,’ apparently has no such reservations for the PGA Tour’s return to competition next week amid the coronavirus pandemic.

4 years ago, many elite players cited concerns about their health in skipping the Rio Olympics during the Zika scare, yet they brush off concerns now about a far more deadly disease

Something does not compute. In 2016, the world’s top four-ranked golfers at the time – Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth – declined to participate in the Rio Olympics because of concerns about the Zika virus, which killed one person in the U.S. that year.

All four are scheduled to compete next week at the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 106,000 Americans in six months. That’s puzzling behavior, especially in recalling these statements they made when withdrawing from the Rio Games, in which golf returned to the Olympics after a 112-year absence:

Jason Day: “Medical experts have confirmed that while perhaps slight, a decision to compete in Rio absolutely comes with health risks to me and my family. … Playing golf cannot take precedent over the safety of our family. I will not put them at risk.”

Dustin Johnson: "This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored. Paulina [Gretzky, Johnson's fiancée] and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Rory McIlroy: “After speaking with those closest to me, I’ve come to realize that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else. Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.”

When Jordan Spieth withdrew from the Rio Games just hours before the entry deadline, he danced around the Zika situation and instead cited unspecified “health reasons.” He took pains to express his support of Olympic golf and his desire to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games, which have been postponed until 2021 because of coronavirus. “This year, I just had to try and weigh a risk that doesn't present itself every year,” said Spieth, who had no way of knowing that four years later, competing in an ordinary PGA Tour event would present an infinitely greater risk.

What changed? Is the health of their families no longer a priority? Do they have that much trust that the Tour can protect them, and everyone affiliated with the tournament, from exposure to a virus that has infected more than 1.8 million Americans and has yet to plateau – indeed, has increased – in some parts of the country? Or was their expressed concern about Zika, as widely suspected, just a convenient smokescreen to hide their lack of enthusiasm for the Olympics?

Players who live outside the United States seem to be taking the risks more seriously. England’s Lee Westwood was spot-on during a recent interview with Golf Channel, when he was asked about safety protocols on the European Tour, which has set its tentative restart for the end of July. “We can’t afford anything to go wrong, and this virus to spread any more than it has,” Westwood said, adding that while the resumption of pro golf may contribute to kickstarting the economy, “we don’t want a second wave [of coronavirus].”

Westwood, as have countryman Tommy Fleetwood and Australia’s Adam Scott, indicated he won’t play in PGA Tour events, or the PGA Championship, as long as strict self-quarantine requirements are in effect for visitors to the United States – which in his case would mean arriving two weeks before a tournament, being confined to a hotel room until the event begins, then going into quarantine again for two weeks after his return to England. “It’s not worth taking the risk,” he said. “If everybody thinks that those kinds of precautions have got to be in place, I don’t feel like golf is a priority if it’s that severe.”

Players who live in the United States, of course, won’t have to endure four weeks of quarantine. But that, in effect, contributes to a false sense of security and increases the risk – especially now that the widespread lifting of shelter-in-place orders, as well as large gatherings nationwide, protesting police brutality and societal race-based inequality, have raised fears that cases of coronavirus will spike with a vengeance. Demonstrations of varying sizes have occurred in metropolitan Dallas, including Fort Worth, where the Charles Schwab Challenge is slated to begin June 11; South Carolina Lowcountry communities near Hilton Head, where the RBC Heritage is to begin June 18; Hartford, Conn. (Travelers Championship, June 25 in suburban Cromwell); and Detroit (Rocket Mortgage Classic, July 2).

The trajectory of reported cases may be flattening in some areas, but it’s on the rise elsewhere (including Texas). As of June 3, more than 1.8 million cases of coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., and more than 106,000 have died. In the Texas counties of Dallas and Tarrant (Fort Worth), more than 16,600 cases have been reported, causing at least 412 deaths.

By comparison, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were fewer than 2,400 confirmed and probable cases of Zika virus in the U.S. in 2016, causing one death. Mosquito-borne Zika infections generally are mild and not life threatening. However, Zika was found to cause a significant incidence of brain abnormalities in newborns as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disabling neurological disorder, in adults. Brazil was hard hit by Zika in 2015 and early 2016, although the outbreak largely had subsided by the time the Summer Olympics got underway.

When the PGA Tour on April 16 announced its revised schedule, officials deflected a question about players who might be reluctant to compete because of the health risks. “I will tell you that most of our players, if not every one of them, are eager – they’re anxious – to get back to doing what they do best,” said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s chief tournament and competitions officer.

But the words eager and anxious aren’t necessarily interchangeable. It strains credulity – particularly after the Rio precedent – to believe that players’ families, friends and advisers aren’t anxious about the risks of them returning to work under the protracted shadow of a pandemic.

“That's one of the beauties of being a PGA Tour member; you're an independent contractor,” Pazder said. “You're not required to be at any PGA Tour event. So, they have that discretion to play tournaments where they favor the golf course, or tournaments, in this instance to your question, [where] they may or may not feel comfortable. But that's an individual player decision.”

True enough, PGA Tour members enjoy the freedom to work when they want, where they want. They are not under contract with teams, whose owners collectively determine policies of their respective leagues. There is no pro golfers’ union to look out for their interests. Golf is arguably the most capitalistic of sports, in that the rich get richer and those on its low rungs struggle to subsist. Top players can afford to opt out of tournaments at their pleasure. Rookies, journeymen and those competing on developmental tours don’t have that luxury. It’s unconscionable to expect the latter to choose between livelihood and health.

Moreover, the contestants themselves are bit players in the coronavirus theater. Even with no audience, the staging of a PGA Tour event includes dozens of tentacles that reach into the community over several days. It takes an incredible amount of arrogance, even by PGA Tour standards, for the organization to promote the idea that it has the expertise and capability to conduct an event without posing danger to the host community.

But that’s what the Tour is selling, and players are buying it. In so doing, they’re squandering the greatest benefit of being independent contractors: total control of their own welfare, and that of their families. It’s mind-boggling that more Tour members haven’t questioned the wisdom of going back to work so soon.

Really, what’s the rush?

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