Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson are among five golfers who have withdrawn from the Travelers Championship, four of them out of a chain-reaction abundance of caution regarding the coronavirus.
It's a development that puts the PGA Tour — and perhaps organized sports as a whole — on notice about what it means to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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.
The PGA Tour released results that showed three positive tests at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut: for Cameron Champ, who tested positive upon arrival Tuesday to force his withdrawal, and for the caddies for both Koepka and McDowell. There were no positive tests ahead of this week's lower-tier Korn Ferry Tour event in Farmington, Utah.
Entering the third week of the return from a three-month shutdown amid the pandemic, 2,757 tests have been adminstered 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."
Nick Watney was the first player to test positive, doing so this past Friday before the second round of the RBC Heritage tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which was teeming with people on summer vacation. That led to 11 people who had come in close contact with Watney — including former Baylor School golfer Luke List, who along with Vaughn Taylor played with Watney in the first round — undergoing two rounds of tests, all of which came back negative.
Champ became the second player to test positive, but then four more golfers withdrew in Connecticut even with negative test results. List was among those in the field with a Thursday tee time listed on the PGA Tour website, along with fellow former Red Raiders standout Keith Mitchell.
Harris English, the other Baylor graduate who is a regular on the top tour, was not listed in the field after playing both of the past two events. He is 24th in the FedEx Cup standings
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 on the top tour, doing so through a Monday qualifier.
When Chase clinched a spot in the Travelers Championship, Brooks made arrangements for his younger brother to have his own house to stay in starting Tuesday, but in the meantime they stayed together. Then the brothers played a practice round with McDowell and 2019 British Open champion Shane Lowry.
Both Koepkas said they believed they should withdraw because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive.
"I feel terrible for Chase," Brooks 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 this past weekend with a tournament-record score that moved him to No. 5 in the World Golf Ranking, withdrew when he learned a family member had tested positive.
The Travelers Championship will tee off as scheduled, even if the field is a bit smaller. Monahan said the tour would continue, too, and that there is no set number of positive tests that would lead to another shutdown.
"We feel like we're on a path that's going to allow us to continue to sustain our return to golf," said Monahan, although he also added that "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 the PGA Tour's health and safety protocol. 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 a 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 PGA Tour does not publicize disciplinary actions or fines.
McDowell said his caddie flew on a commercial flight that was packed from Dallas to Orlando, Florida, after he missed the cut at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the return event at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. That Monday, they went to a memorial service — along with Elliott, who grew up with McDowell in Northern Ireland, and McDowell's trainer — and then they all drove six hours to Hilton Head.
"The problem is, people are out here passing tests when they could still have the virus," McDowell said. "That's what we're learning. Ricky passed a test on Monday, and he just failed it this morning."
The PGA Tour's return to competition started with a perfect record: 487 tests for players arriving at Colonial; 98 players on the charter flight to South Carolina; 369 tests upon arrival at Hilton Head Island. All came back negative.
However, now there have been four positive tests in a six-day stretch, and Monahan said no one should be surprised if there are more next week in Detroit, or the following two weeks in Ohio, where back-to-back events — the Workday Charity Open and the Memorial Tournament — will be held at Muirfield Village Golf Club near Columbus.
"I think this is the reality of what we're all living under," Monahan said. "We are doing everything we can to make that not be the case. But I don't think anybody should be surprised. I'm certainly hopeful we won't. But to be able to say that we're going to not have any cases ... would be disingenuous because we're all learning as we're going."
McDowell said he would take two weeks off and hoped to return in July at the first Muirfield event. So much depends on the virus, though, and whether it reaches a level that's not prudent for competition to continue.
"Do we shut down, start up in a month's time, two months' time? You come back and what's changed?" McDowell said. "I think the tour is doing a pretty good job. It's just so difficult to control everybody outside the gates. We have to get through to the other side of this."