Facing travel ban, Bernd Wiesberger (barely) caught the last flight home to Europe

March 13, 2020

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Friday morning, there was no golf on TV. But there were golfers, flagged down by Golf Channel as they swung by the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass to pick up their belongings. Many spoke eloquently about the strangeness of their situation. Jon Rahm gave perspective. Rory McIlroy gave assurance. But it was Bernd Wiesberger, perhaps the least-known top-30 player in the world, who spoke with the most gravity.

Wiesberger, 34, calls Austria home. Jetlag and anxiety had him awake early on Thursday, watching news reports from back home, talking to friends and family, worrying about his plans. He realized the European travel ban would prevent his family from coming to Augusta and would soon prevent him from going to Vienna, too. He made it clear that he thought there was a good chance a PGA Tour player has contracted the coronavirus, and he feared a massive quarantine for all involved.

He described seeing videos of grocery stores at home, emptied out by panicked customers. “It’s not nice news you want to wake up to,” he said. He shot 74 Thursday and went to bed early.

Friday, he awoke to the clang of his hotel room phone. His caddie had gotten the news before he had — the tournament was off. Wiesberger’s priorities shifted immediately. If he could get home, he could help his grandmother and his parents with their grocery shopping. He could hang out at home for a while.

He booked a United flight to Newark, and would connect there to head to Vienna via last flight out on Austrian Airlines. Given the 30-day travel ban in effect from Europe, this would mean he might not make it back for the Masters. It was a risk he was willing to take.

“Golf will return at some point, we don’t know when,” he said. “But it’s not a priority right now.”

As he wrapped up his interview, other golfers cycled across Golf Channel. Webb Simpson. Brendan Steele. Matt Kuchar.

Twenty minutes up Rt. A1A, I flipped off the TV, checked out of my Holiday Inn Express and headed for the Jacksonville Airport. On the way, the email announcement came through: The Masters was postponed.

When I got to my gate, I noticed Wiesberger was there, too, wearing a striped sweater and blue trucker hat, extended phone charger hanging out of his jeans. We’d grabbed the same last-minute flight. Plenty of TPC Sawgrass transplants strode through the terminal: Jimmy Walker and his wife, Erin. Broadcaster Terry Gannon. USGA liaison Jason Gore.

Our flight boarded on time, but then immediately deplaned without explanation. We were being delayed. Wiesberger stopped by the United desk, looking for answers. He didn’t get any.

I stopped to chat. He said this exact thing — a delay getting to Newark — was what he’d been afraid of. His mind had immediately gone to the worst possible situation: Had Newark stopped taking flights? Was there another travel ban? Did someone in the terminal somehow have the virus?

He pulled out his phone to show me scenes of home: empty shelves of hand sanitizer. Grocery store lines out the door. A text from his buddy who’d watched someone buy 100 tubes of toothpaste. “That’s where I’m trying to get to,” he said.

The voice of a United employee came crackling over the loudspeaker. There had been a miscommunication; we could begin boarding again. Wiesberger was in Group 3. He let his seatmate keep the window. Three bottles of hand sanitizer dangled from his backpack, ready for deployment.

I thought about something he’d said earlier. “It’s unprecedented times. We all need to kind of stick together and do the right thing for everyone, for the elderly, to not have anyone affected that doesn’t need to be.”

The nature of golf demands that players be selfish, with their time, their effort, their focus. Teams build up around them — caddies, agents, physios — but the entire ecosystem revolves around one person getting in the best possible position to play their best golf. Golfers do the right thing for themselves, nearly all the time. It’s part of their job description. But these are different times.

As we walked onto the jetbridge, I wished Wiesberger well, and told him I’d see him when the pros start playing golf again. He shrugged.

“Whenever that will be.”

I continued on to baggage claim; he waited to claim his gate-checked carry-on. There was more than enough time to make it to Austrian Air. Four hours in Newark. Plenty more hand sanitizer. And then a long flight home.

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