- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — As illnesses go, Nick Watney likely proceeded like someone who simply was not at his best. He certainly was not violently ill Friday when he showed up at Harbour Town Golf Club. And despite warm, humid temperatures, he felt well enough to attempt to play the second round of the RBC Heritage.
But he knew something might be amiss due to the Whoop band he wears around his arm, a tool many golfers use as a way of regulating their health.
Watney, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday and withdrew from the tournament, relayed to Rory McIlroy via a text that an elevated respiratory rate via that band first told him “maybe I could have it.”
And so Watney, 39, conveyed that to tour officials, consulted a physician, took another COVID-19 test — he was negative for the one he took on Tuesday — and then awaited the results at the course, while going about his business to prepare for the second round of the tournament.
It’s fair to question why he was allowed to proceed in that manner, and perhaps that is a flaw in the PGA Tour’s health and safety protocols as part of the coronavirus pandemic.
Why would you allow a symptomatic person to come to the course and practice?
Then again, doesn’t Watney deserve credit for seeking medical attention when it’s quite possible he could have tried to carry on and not said anything?
Therein lies the danger of banning someone who has “symptoms” — while also highlighting that no system can be perfect and there is some risk involved as sports attempt to come back after a lengthy shutdown.
“I hope not because it’s not about yourself, right?” McIlroy said when asked Saturday if he could see someone not reporting symptoms if they otherwise felt OK. “This virus isn’t about … most people that get it that are healthy are going to recover from it and be OK, but it’s the people that you can infect. That’s the big risk. I’d like not to think that people, if they were symptomatic, that they wouldn’t report.”
And yet perhaps a player not in McIlroy’s tax bracket might consider doing just that. Maybe he believes the risk is worth it, because he’s in contention or needs the FedEx Cup points or sees an opportunity to make money after being denied that chance for so long.
There might be a hole in the PGA Tour’s policy, but at least Watney took it upon himself to investigate.
“At this point, with who we have out here … you have some older caddies out here, a lot of people out here. You have to err on the side of caution,” U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland said. “Nick Watney is one of the nicest guys we have on tour. I hear he feels horrendous that he might infect someone else, which definitely wasn’t the intent at all. I feel horrible for him, wish him the best.
“But for anybody’s case, you better play it safe.”
As it stands now, the tour’s policy allows a player who has been tested but not yet received a result to use practice areas. But he is not allowed to use the facilities, such as the locker room or clubhouse. Is that enough?
Perhaps a separate practice area could be set up. Maybe more of an emphasis on staying away from others until the result is known. While extreme, if as was the case on Friday when Watney was waiting for a result, hold his tee time so that there is not a rush to prepare and put yourself around others.
The tour also continues to stress to players and caddies their own responsibilities. It is not requiring them to stay in a specific hotel and it is not enforcing any lockdown orders away from the course. And depending on the area of the country the tour visits, outside variables come into play.
Carlos Ortiz told a story about the packed restaurants on Hilton Head Island, how he wanted to visit a few of them but ultimately decided to leave due to the crowds.
“It’s a 30-minute wait and once you get in there, there’s no social distancing, packed tables right by each other, kids running around,” Ortiz said after shooting 63 at Harbour Town on Saturday. “Nobody wearing a mask. We talked about it on Tuesday when we saw it. We were like, “Oh, somebody’s going to get corona here. It’s crazy how busy it is here.”
Ortiz said he felt “paranoid” when he learned of Watney’s positive test.
“I think it’s just a warning,” he said. “We just need to be more careful.”
There is nothing to suggest Watney did anything but get unlucky. He did not test positive when he arrived on Tuesday. A few days later, he was feeling symptoms, and now the PGA Tour has its first COVID-19 case.
Watney, who has five PGA Tour victories, must now self-isolate in South Carolina for 10 days at the Tour’s expense. There were 11 others the PGA Tour identified as having come in contact with him this week, all were tested on Friday, with the results negative.
McIlroy was not among those tested, feeling he was not close enough to Watney at any time to warrant it.
But he also knows this is a week-by-week endeavor. Positive tests are inevitable. Avoiding complacency remains the way for golf to continue safely.
“Starting up, people weren’t naïve,” he said. “Statistically and looking at the numbers, someone was going to get it, and even being as careful as you can be, things happen, and you pick it up from somewhere.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. I think we’ve done really well to start golf again and get back up and play golf tournaments. I don’t think anyone was blind to the fact that someone could catch the virus, and it’s a shame that Nick did. But it’s one case, and as long as it’s contained to that and we move forward, we can keep playing.”
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