News & Opinion

On PGA Tour, many foreign players agree to disagree

Rory McIlroy RBC Heritage round 1
Rory McIlroy, a Northern Irishman who resides in Florida, has avoided the quarantine issues faced by other European golfers who live abroad and play the PGA Tour.

Safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic create a travel gap big enough to fly a private jet through. For Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, it’s a risk he’s willing to take, and he doesn’t understand why others don't want to get to the U.S. and stay here

The PGA Tour is in Week 2 of its experiment to restart golf during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though the Tour has reported no positive COVID-19 tests among its players, caddies and officials, the first two weeks have brought the Tour to Texas and now South Carolina, states with increased numbers of infections.

Seemingly, it’s only a matter of time before a positive test shows up on the PGA Tour, and then the efficacy of the PGA Tour’s 37-page Health and Safety Plan will be tested.

Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, affirmed his comfort level with the PGA Tour’s safety program. But McIlroy, speaking Wednesday from Hilton Head Island, S.C., site of the RBC Heritage, extended little sympathy to European Tour players who have complained about the Official World Golf Ranking system restarting last week while their tour remains on hiatus for another month. Many foreign players opted not to travel to the U.S. because of visitor restrictions.

“If I were in their shoes and I was asked to come over to the states and shelter in place or quarantine for two weeks before these tournaments, I would have done that,” said McIlroy, who lives in Jupiter, Fla. “I mean, if you really care about your career and care about moving forward, you should be here.”

For players and caddies who were overseas once the pandemic began and wanted to compete on the PGA Tour, they would need to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in the U.S. before being able to practice and compete.

Harry Diamond, McIlroy’s caddie, stayed at McIlroy’s guest house to meet the quarantine requirements.

Englishmen Matt Wallace and Matthew Fitzpatrick, who play primarily on the European Tour, also came to the U.S. and quarantined for two weeks. Many of their European colleagues weren’t comfortable enough to make the trip.

“I’m not very keen on flying at the moment, especially to the states where they seem to have adopted a more relaxed approach to tackling the virus,” England’s Lee Westwood said via text message. “Our rules over here seem far tighter.”

Perhaps it’s an easy stance for McIlroy, given that he can travel on private jets or take the Tour’s charter flight between events. For other travelers who must fly commercial, with a hundred or more fliers on the plane who might not have been tested for the virus, social distancing is not an option.

I can better understand Westwood’s position. Flying from England to the U.S. seems daunting these days, just as a flight from my home in suburban Washington to San Francisco for the PGA Championship, the first major of 2020, would require a five-hour-plus plane ride, with no social distancing.

Westwood, who is keen to restart his season after a victory in Abu Dhabi in January, has used the time off to improve his conditioning, having lost nearly 30 pounds. But he remains concerned that many reopenings across the U.S. have gone wrong, mainly because of state or federal pressure to restart the economy.

Now, infection hotspots have flared up across the country, and many health professionals say we still have not gotten through the first wave. Where the country and golf might be in early August for the PGA is uncertain.

“It’s still too far away, but if there are quarantines in place here or in the states, I won’t play,” Westwood said of playing in the PGA.

As a journalist, I am concerned about attending an event across the country. With a desire to do my job, I can’t in good conscience fly, so my plan is to drive from one coast to the other and control many of the variables.

Which takes me back to McIlroy’s comments. I like McIlroy. His honest comments are refreshing and insightful yet also controversial. He showed little empathy for his fellow European Tour players, notably when asked about those with families, and that’s unfortunate.

“I do appreciate that, but it's sort of the end of the school year. I know a few kids that went back to school,” he said. “Again, you can bring your family with you. We all have the means to do that. Look, it might seem a little harsh, but I don't get that mindset, especially if you care about your career and you want to advance.”

U.K. media have suggested that McIlroy, upon reflection, might retract his statement and be more compassionate.

I hope so. If not, it’s just a point of disagreement, which is just fine.

We don’t always agree.

But by August and PGA week, McIlroy will fly his private jet to San Francisco. If he’s comfortable with the travel, Westwood will have made the trip to California. I will be in my car, driving 2,800 miles from the East Coast to the West Coast for the season’s first major championship, at TPC Harding Park.

They’re simply different perspectives.

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