PGA Tour: As COVID-19 cases go up, security bubble tightens and Jay Monahan reads out riot act
The first week of PGA’s ‘Return to Golf’ was a big success with no positive tests at Charles Schwab. The trickle started with the RBC Heritage and it has continued. All this prompted a clearly sleepless Jay Monahan to go into a stricter mode.
This week, the PGA Tour has gone into a stricter mode. As the challenge becomes bigger, the security bubble is becoming tighter and the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is not shy about reading out the riot act.
For now, Monahan seems to have it in control, but the next big test could be when the players who tested positive for COVID-19 come back to play after their isolation and quarantine period is over. How will others react, will the Tour have another plan for them and much else.
It is hard to pinpoint when Monahan may have decided to become sterner, but it was probably around the time when the caddies for Graeme McDowell and Brooks Koepka tested positive, leading to the withdrawal of the two players besides Brooks’ brother, Chase, who had Monday-qualified for the Travelers Championship but played a practice round with the elder Koepka and McDowell. Besides that player Cameron Champ tested positive earlier and withdrew.
With the in-form Webb Simpson also withdrawing as a precaution following a family member’s positive test – the identity not been revealed – a lot of gloss was lost in terms of the field.
The first week of PGA’s ‘Return to Golf’ was a big success with no positive cases at Charles Schwab. The trickle started with the RBC Heritage and it has continued.
All this prompted a clearly sleepless Monahan to address a virtual Press Conference, where he did not mince words.
He was blunt as he said, “All of us have an extraordinary responsibility to follow those protocols. For any individual that does not, there will be serious repercussions, and I'm not going to get into the specifics of it.
“But everybody knows and needs to know that our future, our ability to sustain this business and to impact the communities where we play and to create so many jobs is contingent on our ability to follow those protocols. So when we have instances where someone hasn't, they will be dealt with, and as I said, the consequences will be significant.”
It was similar to the memo he sent to the players.
It was never going to be easy to build a fool-proof system. A ‘security bubble’ had been created and in the weeks since, we have seen it getting tighter. But mind you, it will never be 100 percent safe – an element of risk will always exist.
Travelling has been taken care of by charters; players and caddies who use commercial modes are tested when they arrive and again, before they play and when necessary or if the players feel some symptoms.
But for the first few weeks, the players after testing would start preparing – like hitting balls on the range or putting green - while waiting for the results. That has been put to an end. Beginning this week at Ohio for the Rocket Mortgage, players will be held back in a holding area until the results arrive.
It may be remembered that Nick Watney was at the range while waiting for the results, which led to some tense moments for some big names, who were in the proximity during the period when Watney was at the range at the Harbour Town Links before RBC Heritage.
India’s Arjun Atwal, who got a sponsor’s exemption into the event this week, went through it and said he waited for close to two hours for the result. “Getting the negative was a relief,” he said.
The Tour understands the risks and that the virus is something that can infect anyone, so the PGA Tour also put a stipend programme in place. “We have developed a program, a stipend program, for players on our tours, if they were to test positive during the week or during competition, and to be able to be eligible for those protocols, we've just reconfirmed for our players, you must follow our protocols in order to qualify for the stipend,” said Monahan.
The stipend is $100,000, a heft sum, that would roughly be equal to what a 19th to 20th place finisher would get in a Seven million dollar event.
Monahan has been in constant touch with the players and the Players Advisory Council, which made the ‘Return to Golf’ possible.
It’s been a long process as he explained, “We have been working since March to develop a comprehensive health and safety plan that would be considered a best practice among the professional sports leagues.
“While we've been thorough in building and implementing a program that mitigates as much risk as possible, we knew it would be impossible to eliminate all risk.”
“We need to use these developments as a stark reminder for everyone involved as we continue to learn from an operational standpoint. We're making several adjustments to our health and safety plan as noted in the memo sent to players and we will continuously reinforce to all players, caddies, staff members and support personnel on property at PGA Tour events to adhere to social distancing and other safety professionals that further minimise risk.”
The process involves a Charter (flight) protocol when players and others get tested before getting on the charter on Monday. The Tour also added additional testing upon arrival in the following week's tournament so that everybody that's arriving via it is going through the same testing protocol.
Beginning this week, player instructors and managers, too, were moved inside the testing bubble and were subject to the same testing protocols. The fitness trailers have also been put in place this week onwards and players must wear a mask while entering the trailers. Also, players are not being allowed onto the property (golf course and its facilities) until the test comes through.
As Monahan added, “If we can properly socially distance, if everybody when they are inside, is wearing a mask, and doing all of the things we've outlined from the outset, if we continue to stay true to what we've set, we feel like, again, we are going to be in a position to sustain our return.”
That could well hold the key to golf competition going forward. The other Tours, much smaller and less deep pockets are looking at the PGA Tour practices and seeing how much they can learn implement when they push the reset button.
The PGA Tour not only has its players to worry about but for the present, even their experience and handling of the pandemic could be crucial for the sport.
The final word from Monahan: "The safety of our players is our No 1 concern, and our brand is our greatest asset.”
No one in golf will disagree with him on that.
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