News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s 'bubble' bursts with Nick Watney fiasco

Nick Watney at 2020 Farmers Insurance Open
In becoming the PGA Tour’s first positive test for coronavirus, Nick Watney pops the Tour's intended 'bubble.'

The Tour can control only so much in its desired ‘bubble’ to ward off coronavirus transmission at tournament sites, but the Watney debacle at Hilton Head indicates there’s more trouble to come

PGA Tour veteran Nick Watney tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday and has withdrawn for the RBC Heritage.

That headline was part of a bigger one for sports. Thirty LSU football players, two of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, baseball players for the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays, hockey personnel and players for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs and numerous staff and college athletes at Clemson and Texas joined Watney in the coronavirus cross-hairs.

That’s just one weekend.

All of which might prompt a sports fan to ask, Are we moving just a little too fast?

The PGA Tour is much further along in its comeback than other pro sports, except for NASCAR.

During its recent three-month suspension, the Tour devised a system that it hoped would check all of the boxes and work amid the numerous variables.

Let’s just take the first week back, two weeks ago at Colonial. Players were encouraged to stay in one of the PGA Tour’s hotels in Fort Worth, Texas, but they were allowed to make other housing arrangements. The NBA, by comparison, will mandate that its players stay onsite when play resumes next month at Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

Staying in an unsanctioned hotel creates variables, as does eating out – not only for the players but for every person who stepped onto the grounds at Colonial.

Add in the fact that Texas is one of the states trending upward in new infections after aggressively reopening the economy and you get the picture.

Now, consider Hilton Head Island, S.C., site of the recent RBC Heritage. Unlike Fort Worth, Hilton Head is a vacation mecca. Even though fans were not permitted on the grounds at either event, they are close enough in Hilton Head to create some degree of panic.

Then, to venture off the course and into the resort area invites a new level of concern.

“I mean, no offense to Hilton Head, but they're seeming to not take it very seriously,” Justin Thomas said during the RBC Heritage. “It's an absolute zoo around here. There's people everywhere. The beaches are absolutely packed. Every restaurant, from what I've seen when I've been driving by, is absolutely crowded.”

The PGA Tour can control very little beyond the tournament ropes. As Tour officials often remind us, the players are independent contractors and, thus, can’t be ordered where and when to play.

Yet, the Tour needs to get its players in line about their activities off the golf course. Those actions can create a questionable environment inside the Tour’s proposed “bubble” to stop the spread of the virus.

“The whole plan put in place was, not if but when somebody tests positive, what's the protocol, and what are the next steps?” Jordan Spieth, a PGA Tour Policy Board member, said after Friday’s second round in Hilton Head. “So, I feel confident, just in being on those phone calls, in what the PGA Tour's going to do going forward here, and hopefully contact tracing doesn't lead to anybody else testing positive within the bubble.

“South Carolina’s open,” he said. “If you go anywhere to a restaurant, there's a lot of people there right now. So, I guess that's probably best case is that he got it on his own outside. But, yeah, again, it was not an 'if' scenario. You've got to plan for it to happen, and hopefully it's very much contained.”

I wish I had the same confidence as Spieth, but as we drill down, the plan clearly has flaws.

It never could have been perfect. Yet, the fact that an infected player could wander onto the practice range early Friday when the outcome of his test was unknown seems to mar the Tour’s process.

The PGA Tour said when announcing its policy to reopen last month that the safety and health of its players was paramount.

That no doubt was their intention, but they failed Friday, and possibly earlier.

Watney came to Hilton Head not feeling well, and his test upon arrival was negative. On Friday, before his arrival at the course for the second round, Watney notified PGA Tour officials that he was concerned he might, in fact, have the disease.

He went to Tour’s designated site for testing and then while waiting for the results was allowed to interact with players, including Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy.

How that was possible is beyond comprehension. Whatever protocol the Tour is using needs a quick rewrite.

Watney must self-isolate for at least 10 days under the PGA Tour's protocols. He was paired in the opening round with Vaughn Taylor and Luke List, both of whom reportedly were informed about the test result midway through Friday's round.

I’m not a health professional, but I’m certain that sick people should not mingle with healthy people.

Watney is the first player on the PGA Tour to receive a positive test result, but as Spieth said, he will not be the last. So, is the world ready to bring sports out of hibernation?

It’s clear that we still don’t know enough about coronavirus, which has infected more than 2.35 million in the U.S., including 122,000-plus deaths. It’s also clear via the Watney caper that testing is not infallible.

The Tour could have all of the good intentions in the world, but each week brings its own challenges, so suggesting that the same basic protocols should be overlain each week is naïve.

Every week needs to be treated differently, because variables change with each Tour stop.

I wish Watney good health and hope that no one with whom he came in contact has an issue. Should that turn out not to be the case, is that due to proper procedure or pure happenstance?

Time will tell.

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