Inside the P.G.A. Tour Bubble, Silent Fairways and Mounting Cases

CROMWELL, Conn. — When Sergio Garcia sank his final putt Thursday on an 18th green enveloped by a natural amphitheater customarily filled with thousands of fans, the golf ball’s rattle around inside the hole could be heard from 30 yards away. A minute later, as Garcia ascended a hill, the only sound was his pencil scratching a last number on a scorecard.

The PGA Tour’s officials have said they are proud to be at the vanguard of major American sports returning to competition after the coronavirus shut down athletic events nationwide. But on Thursday at the Travelers Championship — the third fan-free event in the tour’s comeback — the noiselessness was an eerie contrast to a growing chatter about how much longer professional golf’s traveling circus would keep hopscotching around the country.

Golf’s grand experiment to prove that an outdoor, noncontact sport operating on a nomad’s schedule could return safely during a pandemic was showing signs of the stress that comes with attempting the unprecedented.

Denny McCarthy tested positive on Friday after waking up feeling “achy” and withdrew from the Travelers event. A playing partner from the first round, Bud Cauley, tested negative but withdrew from the tournament for precautionary reasons. The third golfer in that group, Matt Wallace, also tested negative and will continue to play.

On Wednesday, four golfers withdrew from the tournament because of Covid-19 concerns, including Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson, the fourth- and fifth-ranked players in the world. Koepka departed after his caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive for the virus as part of the PGA Tour’s multilayered testing system. Koepka’s brother, Chase, who had also qualified for the tournament, also withdrew after having played a Tuesday practice round with Brooks and Elliott. Earlier in the day, the former United States Open champion Graeme McDowell announced he would not compete because his caddie, Ken Comboy, tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

Simpson, who won last week’s PGA Tour event in South Carolina, withdrew and chose to isolate himself because a family member had recently tested positive for the virus. Two other golfers, Nick Watney and Cameron Champ, had already withdrawn from the tournament after positive test results in the previous 10 days.

The departures sent a jolt through the golf community and had Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, warning players of “serious repercussions” if they did not follow new, stricter safety protocols. Shane Lowry, the reigning British Open champion, said when asked if the withdrawals had jarred his colleagues: “The first couple of weeks have been kind of a kick in the backside to all of us.”

Scores of golfers Thursday went out of their way to praise the safety measures imposed by the tour, including the world’s top-ranked golfer, Rory McIlroy.

“There’s been almost 3,000 tests administered and the percentage of positive tests is under a quarter of a percent,” McIlroy said. “I think as a whole, it’s been going really well.”

But McIlroy tellingly conceded there were “loose ends” that needed to be tied up, which may be at the crux of the matter. Many top players have been calling for their brethren to be far more diligent in adhering to social-distancing recommendations on the golf course, because the execution of those guidelines has been spotty at best. Players routinely bump fists, talk face-to-face with their caddies and stand shoulder-to-shoulder on tees and greens.

Moreover, as other sports contemplate resuming competitive play within a so-called bubble for the players, golf has patently experienced how difficult it can be to maintain a safe zone once the athletes leave the playing arena.

Many golfers have adhered to tour guidelines, which require going to considerable lengths to avoid contact with others. The tour chartered a plane to ferry golfers to tournaments, disallowed family members at courses, and advised golfers to sequester themselves in private, rented homes or tour-approved hotels. Some golfers and caddies, however, have been seen eating together at restaurants. And in other cases, with a field as deep as 148 players, the tour has no way to restrict what players are doing with their evenings.

Since Wednesday’s positive test results, leading players are trying to send the message that dicey individual choices run the risk of putting the entire tour back on hiatus.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • What’s the best material for a mask?

      Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“If we start doing whatever we want, all of us, then it probably will be totally out of control and then it could get dangerous,” said Garcia, who said this week’s positive test results were “a wake-up call.”

“It’s not back to normal,” he added. “It’s not what it used to be, and we have to realize that. We have to be trying to be as careful as possible.”

The tour has taken new steps in hopes of keeping the circuit moving along on a weekly schedule that currently stretches throughout the year. Earlier this week, the tour distributed to every player a Whoop band, a device worn on the wrist or upper arm to monitor various medical data. A Whoop band worn by Watney had alerted him to an elevated respiratory rate and led to a second test for the coronavirus last week — just days after Watney had tested negative for the virus.

Monahan announced on Wednesday that players boarding the tour-sponsored charter jet would be tested not only the day before the flight leaves but also shortly after it lands. He said that fitness trailers would now be on site to keep golfers from visiting local gyms and that players’ coaches were now part of the tour’s testing protocol. In talking to reporters, Monahan avoided specifically saying how many positive test results it would take for the PGA Tour to shut down.

Keegan Bradley, who won the 2011 P.G.A. Championship, was asked Thursday what might happen if 10, or 15, or 20 players tested positive for Covid-19.

“If we get to that point, I think that none of us will be playing,” Bradley answered.

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