The PGA Tour is now in its third week back from a three-month hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns.
Other major sports are in the process of piecing together new plans to either finish seasons that were interrupted or begin their 2020 seasons with important safety measures in place to stop the spread of the virus.
It would appear most sports leagues plan to resume normal programming within the next couple of months, with the exception being that fans will not be present for events. The NFL has not made a decision on fans yet for the 2020 season, but it’s very difficult to envision 60,000 people packed into a stadium in the next few months.
The PGA Tour is in a unique position to lead by example as it returns to action. During its first week back, there were no positive tests for COVID-19 among any player, caddy, or tournament staff.
However, as the Tour has continued, positive tests have increased. Cameron Champ became the second PGA Tour player to test positive for COVID-19, following Nick Watney’s positive test a week ago. Each player immediately withdrew from the current event upon receiving news of positive tests.
Prior to this week’s Travelers Championship, Ricky Elliott, the caddy for four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, tested positive for the virus and Koepka immediately withdrew from the event. Koepka’s brother Chase, who had to earn a spot in the tournament during a Monday qualifier, also withdrew.
Former U.S. Open champions Webb Simpson, who won at the RBC Heritage last week, and Graeme McDowell also withdrew due to concerns over the virus. McDowell’s longtime caddy Ken Comboy tested positive for the virus this week.
The PGA Tour knew positive tests were going to happen. It’s just not realistic to expect thousands of people, between staff, players, and caddies, to stay immune to the virus at this point. Still, there’s only been two players and a few caddies that have tested positive for the virus among a couple of thousand tests conducted by the PGA Tour.
However, even that small number of positive tests has produced a large ripple effect. A large contingent of golf fans and media is calling for the PGA Tour to shut back down. Golf.com’s Alan Shipnuck published a column Wednesday detailing all of the reasons why he thinks it’s irresponsible for the Tour to continue.
Regardless of whether one believes the PGA Tour should shut down again or not, it’s clear that this does not bode well for the return of other major sports in the United States. Golf, by nature, is one of the safest activities people can do during a health pandemic. Participants are outside, do not share a ball, and can easily maintain social distancing throughout a round.
Koepka has been consistent about the fact that he is taking the safety measures very seriously, and his caddy still tested positive. The positive test resulted in both he and his brother withdrawing from the event.
The Koepka brothers withdrew because they understand they are now both at high risk of contracting the virus and spreading it to others. Elliott and Koepka represent a team on the course. They come in contact with the same items such as golf clubs, golf balls, towels, scorecards, and other accessories necessary for a round of golf.
Wouldn’t any sports team be impacted in the same way from a positive test?
The positive note for golf is that, if social distancing guidelines are followed, the virus is not spread to opponents on the golf course. However, in other contact sports, that becomes dicey.
For example, let’s say a Vikings player tests positive for COVID-19. That would mean he and everyone he has come in close contact with would be encouraged to quarantine for a two-week period, which would include teammates, coaches, and other team staff members. Equipment is shared. Lockers are close together. Physical contact with the opponent is expected.
Granted, this virus would likely be of little harm to a vast majority of personnel in professional sports leagues that would contract the virus, especially the athletes themselves that are in better physical shape than just about everyone on the planet. But the public outcry from positive tests creates pressure that professional sports leagues and teams will be forced to recognize as they get closer to resuming play.
Sports leagues will have to go against the grain if they want to resume in 2020. The PGA Tour is already doing it by continuing play despite the calls to shut down. Following all of the recommendations of public health experts and government officials will be almost impossible — and that’s assuming all participants are willing to follow them.
Plus, the public reaction alone to every positive test of a player will be seismic if it’s similar to what the PGA Tour has experienced with two players and a few caddies.
The last few months have been a grind without sports. Unfortunately, the precedent being set by PGA Tour players, fans, and media creates little optimism for the return of other sports in 2020.