Golf virus crisis deepens as big guns become latest withdrawals

PGA Tour pro Brooks Koepka has become the latest player to withdraw from an event, after his caddy tested positive for the coronavirus. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson were among five players who withdrew from the Travelers Championship, four of them out of a chain-reaction abundance of caution over the coronavirus that put the PGA Tour on notice.

“The snowball is getting a little bit bigger,” Graeme McDowell told The Associated Press after withdrawing Wednesday because his longtime caddie, Ken Comboy, tested positive for the virus.

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The tour released results that showed three positive tests at the TPC River Highlands in Connecticut — Cameron Champ and the caddies for Koepka and McDowell. There were no positive tests on the Korn Ferry Tour event in Utah.

As it enters the third week in its return from the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down golf for three months, the tour has administered 2,757 tests at PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour events in five states, with seven positive results.

On the PGA Tour alone, there have been 1,382 tests and four positive results.

“It's a low number on a percentage basis, but every number hurts,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said.

“I think we all need to remind ourselves that we're all learning to live with this virus.

"It's pretty clear that this virus isn't going anywhere.”

Golf return rocked by first positive test

Nick Watney was the first player to test positive last week at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which was teeming with people on summer vacation.

Champ tested positive on Tuesday at the Travelers and immediately withdrew.

Four more players withdrew even with negative test results.

Koepka said his caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive and then took another test that came back negative.

No matter. He chose to withdraw, and was especially gutted that his younger brother, Chase Koepka, withdrew after earning a rare chance to play through a Monday qualifier.

When his brother made it, Koepka arranged a house for him to stay in starting Tuesday, so he had his brother stay with him in the meantime. Then, the brothers played a practice round with McDowell and British Open champion Shane Lowry.

Both Koepkas said they felt they should withdraw because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive.

“I feel terrible for Chase,” Koepka said.

“This course is made for him, he's playing as good as I've ever seen him. And I put him in that situation. It's one thing if I withdraw. He doesn't get this opportunity very often.”

Simpson, who won the RBC Heritage last week with a record score that moved him to No. 5 in the world, withdrew when he learned a family member had tested positive.

PGA Tour determined to push forward

Monahan said the tour would continue, and that there was no set number of positive tests that would lead to golf shutting down again.

“We feel like we're on a path that's going to allow us to continue to sustain our return to golf,” Monahan said.

“But rest assured, there won't be many sleepless nights. When you're working in a world of uncertainty, these are the things you worry about.”

Monahan sent a memo to players that outlined increased measures in its health and safety protocols. Those include testing players before and after they take charter flights.

Swing coaches now face mandatory testing each week and will be considered part of the bubble, and the fitness trailer will be at tournaments to keep players from going to gyms.

He also said the tour will no longer pay for players or caddies to be in self-isolation for positive tests if they have not followed the health and safety plan.

“All of us have an extraordinary responsibility to follow these protocols,” Monahan said, adding he has been guilty at times as he adjusts to a new way of living. “For any individual that does not, there will be serious repercussions.”

He did not say what the punishment would be. The tour does not publicise disciplinary actions or fines.