The COVID-19 pandemic has been, and continues to be, a hugely challenging time for the world. Professional sport has been no exception. Although golf was one of the first sports we could play as lockdown in the UK eased, the virus continues to bring disruption, and even controversy, to the professional game in the United States.

The United States has so far seen the greatest number of cases of the virus to date. At the time of writing there have been almost 2.5 million confirmed cases and over 120,000 deaths. Furthermore, cases are still rising at an alarming rate in many states, with over 27,000 new cases reported for the week to last Sunday. Many sporting events have been postponed, including the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, now to be played in 2021.

The question is whether professional sports that do go ahead, in our case golf, can remain safe for competitors, their essential personnel, as well as tour operators, golf course employees and anyone else involved.

The Fragile Tour “Bubble”

Despite efforts for pro tours in the US to continue without fans in attendance and competitors and staff operating in ’bubbles’ (whereby the teams taking part have no contact with anyone outside their tour bubble), there has been criticism that social distancing guidelines have been flouted. Players and caddies have been observed in close proximity to each other, even going so far as to hug. Caddies have handled clubs despite recommendations that only golfers should do so. Fist-bumping and even spitting on greens and fairways have been observed. And that’s just on the course – off it, players have been criticised for attending busy restaurants and hotels. This of course means they have left the tour bubble, which renders the idea pretty useless.

Nick Watney… the first of many?

Nick Watney was the first PGA golfer to be diagnosed with the virus. He’s been criticised for mixing with eleven other members of the RBC Heritage Tour whilst awaiting his test result. The test was an additional one he requested when his WHOOP Strap data suggested his respiratory rate was higher than usual, which can be a sign of COVID-19. A WHOOP Strap is a sensor device worn on the wrist or bicep. It constantly analyses the wearer’s heartbeat, breathing, strain, recovery & sleep patterns. It has now been announced that all players and caddies, as well as other essential personnel on the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, and PGA Tour Championship will be issued with WHOOP straps to aid in detecting signs of infection early.

“On Friday morning of the RBC Heritage, I saw my respiratory rate had spiked on Thursday night. This was consistent with information shared by the WHOOP community, that it could be an early indication of COVID-19. This alerted me to ask the PGA Tour for a test even though I didn’t have any other symptoms, and I unfortunately tested positive. I’m very grateful to have identified these signs early enough, and I am now following PGA Tour protocol.”

Nick Watney

Watney was then forced to withdraw from the tournament and self-isolate for ten days. Once his period of self-isolation is up, he’ll need to test negative twice before he can compete again in a PGA Tour. Cameron Champ has since also tested positive whilst playing the Travelers Championship, forcing him too to withdraw and self-isolate.

What happens next?

Going forward, players and their caddies will continue to be tested on arrival at tournaments, with their temperatures monitored throughout. However, there are no actual rules in the US tournaments with regards to accommodation, meals and entertainment. There are only guidelines. It seems inevitable therefore that there will be further infections within the PGA bubble. Furthermore, the first two events took place in states where the virus is still very much on the up. This fact, coupled with whatt seems a somewhat lackadaisical approach to safety, surely means more cases will appear.

The European Tour is due to resume in late July, though rules here will be much more strict; the bubble stronger. All players, caddies and essential personnel, as well as officials and members of the media, will be tested on arrival and obliged to stay in on-site hotels. If all the on-site hotels are at capacity, only designated off-site accommodation will be an option. It certainly aims to be less of a ‘free-for-all’ than in the US, and therefore seems like a safer option all round.

Ultimately, only time will tell if the precautions taken have been enough. Here’s hoping they are and that we can all keep playing golf, professionally or otherwise!