Tour Confidential: How did the PGA Tour handle its first positive Covid-19 test?

Harbour Town Golf Links

A sign at Harbour Town Golf Links spells out one of the safety measures for the coronavirus.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss how the PGA Tour handled Nick Watney’s positive test for the coronavirus, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson and more.

1. On Friday, Nick Watney became the first PGA Tour player to test positive for Covid-19. He withdrew from the tournament and was to quarantine for at least the next 10 days. The Tour also determined 11 people had come in contact with Watney after he tested negative on Tuesday and tested them, with the results coming back negative. The tournament then continued Saturday. How do you think the Tour handled its first positive test? 

Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): So, the Tour statement said “prior to arriving at the tournament, he indicated he had symptoms consistent with the illness and after consulting with a physician, was administered a test and found to be positive,” which sounded like he didn’t even show up to the course. Yet Brooks Koepka said he saw him in the parking lot, Rory mentioned he talked to him on the putting green and there were reports he was on the range. So I’m not sure if that’s on the Tour or Nick, because if he thinks he *could* test positive, he should not be on site (unless it’s simply to get a test). He shouldn’t have been milling around waiting for results anywhere near players, or the Tour should not have let him. Beyond that, I’ll answer the rest of this in two weeks. The Tour is also in a really tough spot here. There was no game plan for this a couple of months ago. Everyone is still learning.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Good reading, Josh. I had missed that. Odd. Among various other issues, it is imperative for the Tour to be as open and honest as it can possibly be. Yes, there are privacy rights, legal and otherwise, when it comes to public disclosure matters. But this whole Return to Golf thing is, among other things, a teachable moment for other sports, and other industries, on how to proceed with business when life is not business-as-usual.

Sean Zak, senior editor (@Sean_Zak): It seems the Tour followed its protocols, which means that players are allowed to access the grounds while waiting for test results. Now that it’s happened, it seems fair to question those protocols. Should a player who is suspicious of symptoms be allowed to access the course while waiting for test results? What if Watney’s results came back negative? That is the tricky thing the Tour has accepted and will constantly work around. I’ll give the Tour a B+.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): We knew from the start that there was going to be a learning curve, that there would be some slip ups and some wrinkles to smooth out. Once Watney’s test came back positive, I thought the Tour acted promptly and in good faith. The bigger question now is, what happens if more players start testing positive? How does the Tour respond? How much risk is acceptable? Golf is not exempt from the same imperfect balancing act going on in so many other areas of our life.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): Yes, things could have been a tad smoother, but overall the Tour did OK. But we know there is an incubation period during which false negatives are common – I’ll be curious if the 11 folks in close contact with Watney all test negative a week from now. There’s so many layers to this.

2. After Watney was retested on Friday, he went to the course before his results were known. He talked with Rory McIlroy. He was close to Brooks Koepka in the parking lot. On Friday night, players interviewed said that it was only a matter of time before a player tested positive. The key would be to contain it. Did the Tour unnecessarily put players at risk? 

Nick Watney
What’s next for the PGA Tour after Nick Watney tests positive for Covid-19?
By: Nick Piastowski

Berhow: It didn’t seem like a great idea to have Nick on site awaiting his test results. But beyond that, now it’s crunch time. While it would be great to never have to deal with a positive test, that scenario has always been unlikely. Two weeks from now, will there be more positives? If so, how many? Hopefully none. But either way, this will be a key study for other commissioners and sports leagues. And the Tour can say and do all it wants, but it’s up to the players to listen. They have their own ways to minimize risk. They also don’t have to show up if they aren’t comfortable.

Zak: It is very much on the players to police themselves a good amount, too. As much as I wished this didn’t happen to Nick Watney, he will serve as a great example to Tour players that the virus might be inside the ropes and you should act accordingly. You don’t need to get close to other players. You don’t need to do fist-bumps because that’s what normal used to look like. I think we’ll see more reserve from players in the next couple weeks than we did in Fort Worth.

Sens: As Josh says, we’ll know more in two weeks. Meantime, though, as Josh and Sean say, the players have choices here, too. I suspect Watney’s diagnosis will be something of a wakeup call for some of the players who might have been feeling a little too at ease.

Shipnuck: Imagine if Watney gave the virus to the world number one and two. Oy. It seems crazy to allow a player who has any symptoms or suspicions to be on the grounds at all.

Bamberger: Completely agree with the above. I’m borrowing this from a friend: Do you want to get this virus? Presumed answer: No. Then this is what you need to do to make sure you don’t get it, and this is what you need to do to make sure you don’t give it to somebody else. Every single one of us can follow the basic principles that flow from that. Witness New Zealand. The Tour, everybody associated with it, including reporters, has to live by that standard for this whole thing to get better before, to use Rory McIlroy’s March phrase, they get worse. We want to be able to say the worst is behind us. We don’t know if it is or is not. We should act like it’s not.

3. Low scoring was abundant at the RBC, with 40 players finishing at 12-under or better – the number that won last year’s tournament. In just the Tour’s second event back after a three-month hiatus, are you surprised that players have been able to play so well so quickly?

Berhow: Not really. These guys are that good. Twenty under was T14 on the Korn Ferry Tour this week!

Zak: Nope! They knew this was coming, and Mother Nature has treated them well. The course setups have been easy. Also, the fields have been deeper than these tournaments have ever seen. It all adds up to low scoring. 

Sens: Not at all. This is what they do. Especially on vulnerable courses. No surprise that these guys can go low after a layoff. If you separated Sean Zak from his keyboard for six weeks, you’d expect him to come back firing on all cylinders and churning out his usual poetic prose. 

Bamberger: Not at all. This is what they do. I could go on.

Shipnuck: Hot weather equals soft greens, because a lot of water is required to keep the grass alive. Receptive greens allow Tour players to tear up any course.

4. Another PGA Tour tournament, another display of power from Bryson DeChambeau. While hitting balls on the range at Harbour Town Golf Links, he was forced to move back, as his drives were going over the netting. Will he single-handedly reintroduce the “roll back the ball” debate? 

Berhow: I don’t think so. He’s just one person, and this formula isn’t for everyone. There used to be a debate about golfers bulking up and if that was good for their game, but Bryson has taken it to another level. He has proven (again) there’s no one right way to do things. He’s essentially becoming a World Long Drive competitor with a more complete game. That’s insane.

Zak: Bryson is going to be used in every distance debate from now until it creates change. He purposefully worked to test the limits of the technology and his body, and it’s leading to success on the cookie-cutter Tour. Who’s to say that Jordan Spieth couldn’t do the same? Or how about when Bryson neuters TPC Harding Park in a good weather week and shoots 20-under in a major? This is all about him, and it’s beautiful to watch. 

Sens: Bryson’s Bruce Banner transition has made for a great story and some eye-popping moments. But he’s far from the only guy blasting the ball to oblivion. I don’t see a big rollback push coming in his wake. Depending on how his health holds up, he might rekindle the debate over the physical costs of the modern bomber game. But that’s to be seen.

Shipnuck: Bryson has ended the debate as to whether or not Tour players should hit driver on every hole. They should. If more players adopt his go-for-broke style, courses will play even shorter than they already are, which is too short to begin with. We’ve known for a decade-plus that the distance gains on Tour have rendered pretty much every course on the planet obsolete and yet nothing has been done. I’m not sure Bryson alone can change that, but if he is in the vanguard or a further revolution, something’s gotta give. 

Bamberger: The USGA has already reintroduced the “roll-back-the-ball” debate. See March comments made by Mike Davis, Nick Price, et al. Change is coming, people. Not for us. But for them. The game will be better for it.

5. Phil Mickelson turned 50 last week. (Seems like just yesterday he was making his PGA Tour debut!) Will Mickelson be the most competitive 50-plus golfer the Tour has ever seen?

Mickelson smiles.
Phil Mickelson is 50: Here are 10 reasons why you have to love Lefty
By: Michael Bamberger

Zak: Maybe in California. Phil has played very well on the West Coast the last few years and pretty poorly everywhere else. He has the potential to win at, say, 55 or something like that in the next few years, but he could totally lose interest by then. I think Jim Furyk has the sneaky ability to win more than Phil post-50. 

Berhow: Most competitive? Hard to say. Vijay has had two 2nds on Tour since turning 50; thought he’d have more. I could see Phil topping that. And while Phil has no plans to star on the Champions Tour, you have to wonder what a few spot starts from Lefty might do for the senior circuit. (Why not, Phil?) I think he’ll be competitive at Augusta for another decade.

Sens: Depending on how committed and interested he stays, he’ll be as competitive as any plus-50-year-old we’ve seen on certain courses. Like, Augusta. But I don’t see him firing along for eternity like Bernard Langer, say. 

Bamberger: Yes, he will be the best 50-year-old Tour player the Tour has ever seen, with the possible exception of Sam Snead. He needs the game as much now as he ever did. His skills look impressive. He can contend a few times a year, and he can win; he can make this year’s Ryder Cup team. For Phil, 50 is the new 48. And he was pretty darn good at 48. 

Shipnuck: Phil is not gonna grind on the Champions Tour, so no way he touches the body of work by Hale Irwin and Bernard Langer. But if he can pick off a couple of wins on the PGA Tour, which is possible, that’s a huge accomplishment.

6. Happy Father’s Day! What’s your fondest golf memory with your pop?

Zak: It was the first time I was able to play with Dad and Grandpa (who taught me the game) at the private club I grew up working at. We are the opposite of a country club family, but for an afternoon, we were able to play their course and walk their manicured fairways like we owned the place. It was a special day. 

Berhow: One of my grandpas was a really good player and shot his age a few times. The other played maybe once a year and teed up the ball for every shot. My dad got into the game late. He’s not necessarily fast, mutters to himself after poor shots and gets ridiculously frustrated with almost every outcome. So he fits in perfectly when he tees it up with his three sons.

Sens: My dad didn’t play golf. To him, there were only three sports. Red Sox baseball. But he did call me every year on Masters Sunday and conduct the entire conversation in a whisper.

Shipnuck: My dad didn’t play, either. But because of my job, he’s become a fan of the game and so I took him to the Masters a decade ago – that was special.

Bamberger: At St. Andrews. I was caddying on the European Tour, my bride alongside me. My parents made a summer trip to Scotland. The four of us met in St. Andrews. My father and I went to a field after dinner. I brought some balls and some clubs. It was windy and cool, and he was wearing a windbreaker. He had never hit a ball in his life. I dropped a ball by his feet and said, “OK, Dad, address the ball.” My father, stealing from the best of them: “Hello, ball.”

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