HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – As Jordan Spieth so succinctly explained after the second round at Harbour Town, this was a question of when, not if.
The PGA Tour’s perfect testing record through the better part of two weeks was encouraging, but it was fool’s gold and players knew it. That’s why there were no stunned silences as the field was informed that Nick Watney was positive for COVID-19.
“Starting back up, I think people weren't naive. I think just statistically and looking at the numbers, someone was going to get it, and even being as careful as you can be, things happen, and you pick it up from somewhere,” Rory McIlroy said following the third round. “We're still in the middle of a pandemic.”
The Northern Irishman is normally among the wisest heads in the room and on this he landed squarely on the truth. As detailed and exhaustive as the Tour’s return-to-competition plans were, this was never going to be as easy as last week seemed to suggest.
If we’re being honest, the Tour’s bubble is as secure as it can possibly be under the circumstances. Players might be staying at Tour-approved hotels, but that doesn’t mean everyone in that hotel has been tested and gone through the same protocols. Even the slightest brush with the outside world can be devastating.
“Honestly, I can't believe it. As careful as we're all being, the Tour has done an incredible job keeping everybody well aware of what's going on and what to do and how to do it and how to stay clean and keep your hands dry and all that,” Chris Stroud said. “I can't believe he got inside the bubble and still got it. That just shows you how dangerous this is.”
There remains a level of almost universal confidence in the Tour’s ability to forge ahead safely that belies Friday’s sobering news.
“I feel very safe. I wouldn't be playing if I didn't,” Justin Thomas said. “The Tour has done all the protocols they can. Unfortunately, you can't control guys going to get something to eat or whatever it might be, if you're staying in a hotel or room service, or whatever it might be.”
Thomas explained that he’s created his own bubble this week. He’s sharing a house adjacent Harbour Town Golf Links' 10th tee with other players and brought along a chef so he doesn’t have to eat out.
Brooks Koepka is even more isolated this week.
“I've got everybody on lockdown. I brought my own weights. I basically brought my own gym with me,” Koepka said. “I don't have to leave the house. My chef’s there. I've never left the house since we got to Fort Worth on Saturday.”
It remains to be seen if Watney adhered to the protocols as closely as Thomas or Koepka, but given repeated warnings from the Tour, not to mention Watney’s reputation as one of the circuit’s most likable players, it’s highly unlikely he cavalierly spent his nights out at Hilton Head’s finest bars and restaurant. What is known is that Watney passed a coronavirus test this week when he arrived in Hilton Head but failed another Friday morning.
Perhaps the best measure of how far the players’ confidence in the Tour’s plan goes was on display Saturday with the 11:30 a.m. (ET) tee time. The group included Joel Dahmen and Vaughn Taylor, the latter of whom had been paired with Watney on Thursday and was subjected to the Tour’s contact tracing and a COVID-19 test.
“I believe what the Tour is doing, they've done a great job. They didn't do this overnight. This wasn't on a whim,” Dahmen said. “I was almost more secure playing with Vaughn because he was tested after playing yesterday. He had a test more recent than I have. He should be the most comfortable guy out here compared to me, where I haven't been tested since Monday.”
Watney’s positive test was less of a surprise than it was a warning. After nearly two perfect weeks, his withdrawal served as a stark reminder of how imperfect even the most extensive plans can be.