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Jordan Spieth says PGA Tour is working on health adjustments after Nick Watney's positive COVID-19 test

June 23, 2020

Streeter Lecka

CROMWELL, Conn. — The PGA Tour had its first player test positive for COVID-19 last week with Nick Watney prior to the second round of the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head. In a vacuum this isn’t alarming; nearly 2,400 coronavirus tests were administered in the first two weeks on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, and Watney, who withdrew from the event and is in self-quarantine, and an unnamed KFT player have been the only competitors thus far to trigger a positive test.

However, the PGA Tour is not operating in a vacuum. As one of the first major professional sports leagues to return in the United States, the tour has an intensified spotlight in its first weeks back. Which is why Watney’s positive result would trigger a re-examination of the tour’s health protocols.

And it’s a process that will continue to evolve. Speaking on Tuesday at the Travelers Championship, Jordan Spieth said players and tour officials remain engaged in refining the safety measures in place.

“We’ve had calls every Monday, so we had one after Colonial and then we just had one yesterday, and I think it’s going to—we’re going to continue to make minor adjustments,” Spieth said at TPC River Highlands.

When the tour announced its initial protocols in May, they were made with the intention to be elastic, both in terms of how the national landscape altered around the pandemic and through further education of how the virus works. One of the questions raised following the RBC Heritage regarded the possibility of additional testing, something Spieth alluded to. Had a fitness monitor not informed Watney his respiratory rates were up, Watney might have continued playing during the second round and potentially spread the virus to others in the field.

“I think the idea of extra testing has come around. The idea of mandatory tests for anyone who was even within six feet, whether they made physical contact with somebody who had a positive test, making those kind of mandatory, because the testing is very, very easy,” Spieth said. “It goes very quickly. Sure, it’s uncomfortable for a second, but being able to mitigate the risk is the No. 1 priority. We’ve looked into having dinner options, so that you don’t have to go grab-to-go food, to keep the bubble even smaller.”

Another matter is how to prevent the circumstances that surrounded Watney’s case from happening again. After notifying the tour that he had COVID-19 symptoms, which prompted another test, Watney was able to be on the grounds at Harbour Town, including at the practice facility. Over the weekend sources associated with the tour told Golf Digest that the tour did not rule out additional safeguards in the wake of Watney’s case.

“It’s certainly changing, and it’s something that—it’s a plan to work on every single week,” Spieth said. “I think with Nick, the fact that there were no other positive tests was huge, clearly. But the idea that the systems in place allowed for him to test negative on a Tuesday, somehow contract the virus by Friday but not spread it to anyone including the people he’s staying with, means that there was something done right with what was in force at the golf course and how Nick was approaching it, as well. And I know he was one of the safest individuals from Day 1, so it’s kind of unfortunate that it happened to be him.”

If there is a saving grace, the tour is benefitting from the Travelers Championship being the event that follows Watney’s test. Unlike the Charles Schwab Challenge and the RBC Heritage, where only players, caddies and a few officials were tested, all those on site this week, including volunteers, will be tested for coronavirus.

Additionally, Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube says his team has been in talks with the other early events, with safety the paramount goal in the operation.

“It’s been a very collaborative process,” Grube says. “We are learning so much from what’s happened so far, and hope that we can provide information to those tournaments that follow. There’s no doubt the safety aspect is the primary driver. It’s broad, but we’ve broke it down group-by-group to make sure everyone is covered.”

As of writing, the PGA Tour did not respond to a request for comment on what specific changes, if any, will be implemented in response to Watney’s test. But Spieth says they could be in place before the tournament proper begins Thursday, and in piecemeal fashion.

“Even acting on a couple of them by today and tomorrow, different adjustments that will go out to the membership,” Spieth said. “And it’s going to be—these responses can be very immediate, and again, they’re minor adjustments because overall we’ve seen the system actually go very well so far, and until that changes, they’re going to be just little things that make it even safer and potentially—yeah, anyway to mitigate the risk.”