The first PGA Tour player tests positive for the coronavirus, Webb Simpson wins a shootout, Brooks Koepka finally shows up, Bryson DeChambeau continues to dazzle and more in this edition of Monday Scramble:
1. Nick Watney became the first PGA Tour player to test positive for COVID-19, and he certainly won’t be the last.
TAKEAWAY: That’s just the reality of the situation. Thirty-seven pages long, the PGA Tour formulated a comprehensive and detailed return plan, but it’s impossible to create a true “bubble” of only players, caddies and essential personnel. The experts have said as much. The best the Tour can do is mitigate the risk as much as possible.
That ideal doesn’t change, even with Watney’s positive test. He flew privately to Hilton Head, tested negative upon arrival last Tuesday, felt symptomatic before his second round Friday and turned up positive. He’s now in self-isolation for at least the next 10 days, with a $100,000 stipend from the Tour.
The Tour went through the process of contact tracing 11 others who may have come in close contact with Watney, and all of their initial test results were negative. Knowing what we do about the virus, a far more revealing test for those players and caddies will be once they’re at the Travelers. Only then can we know for sure that this was an isolated incident.
2. PGA Tour players including Justin Thomas and Carlos Ortiz expressed their displeasure at those in the Hilton Head area seeming to ignore social distancing guidelines in the midst of a pandemic.
TAKEAWAY: As admirable as those public stances were (JT: “It’s an absolute zoo around here”), external factors should have no bearing on the effectiveness of the Tour’s protocols.
Remember: If local bars and restaurants are slammed with unbothered residents, it shouldn’t affect the players – they’re supposed to be at the course, getting takeout or room service, and then staying in their hotel room or rental house. Venturing outside of the “bubble,” for any reason, is a personal choice, with potential ramifications.
But the Watney test should force the Tour to amend some of its policies. That Watney was alerted to potentially being sick because of an elevated respiratory rate on a fitness tracker underscores the risk of only temperature screening players from Wednesday to Saturday. Had Watney not had that health data, or continued to feel symptom-free, he could have continued on with the virus, unknowingly, and come in contact with more players and caddies.
That Watney was also able to linger in the player practice area Friday while awaiting his test results is another loophole that needs to be closed. Before receiving word that he was positive, Watney was near Brooks Koepka in the parking lot, Rory McIlroy on the putting green and Si Woo Kim on the range, among others. It seems reasonable for the Tour to create some sort of “waiting area” for those players undergoing secondary testing.
Policy tweaks will continue be made. This week at the Travelers, local officials are mandating that media and volunteers are also tested for the virus.
Navigating this unprecedented golf year will require full cooperation from those involved – and then some luck.
3. On a wild Sunday, Webb Simpson birdied five of his last seven holes to win the RBC Heritage by one shot over Abe Ancer.
TRANSLATION: It’s another victory for Simpson, who became the third multiple winner of the season and matched a career high by jumping to No. 5 in the world.
That’s where he once reigned in 2012, the year he won the U.S. Open, but golf at this level is wildly different now, dominated by physical specimens with powerful swings.
Simpson doesn’t possess any of that. He’s not ripped. He doesn’t swing particularly fast (112 mph). Some of his follow-throughs are ungainly, and his putting grip is effective but awkward-looking. And yet ... he continues to produce incredible golf, he knows his steady game and doesn’t waver, and he’s proficient across the board, even gaining some ground off the tee, where he now is able to average 300-plus.
With seven Tour titles, including a major and a Players – you have to respect his game.
4. Propelled by two front-nine eagles, Brooks Koepka closed with 65 to finish solo seventh – his best finish in a full-field event in 11 months.
TRANSLATION: Is Brooks ... back?
The three-month shutdown came at a perfect time for King Koepka, who was hampered by a lingering knee injury and frustrated with his game. Before The Players, he flew to Las Vegas to visit Butch Harmon, a sign of desperation on the eve of one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
That time off appears to have helped. Koepka said this is the best his body has felt “in years” and that “I feel like I can really move through the golf ball.” At Harbour Town, he led the field in strokes gained: off the tee and started dropping putts, filling it up with more than 319 feet worth of putts made.
Koepka getting his game in gear, just in time for a summer push? Wow, imagine that.
5. Bryson DeChambeau racked up his fifth consecutive top-10 finish, tying for eighth at Harbour Town.
TAKEAWAY: Even at another tree-lined course that wouldn’t seem to suit his bulked-up body, DeChambeau hammered away, at times to great effect, finishing the week fifth in strokes gained: off the tee and sixth from tee to green. Undone by a few off-days on the greens, he looks dangerously close to unleashing his full potential.
At this point Big Bryson has become a meme, blowing drives over the range net (and angering homeowners) and vowing to “release the Kraken” once the Tour shifts to bigger ballparks, but his results are undeniably impressive. Now 11th in the world, he’s a threat everywhere he plays, of course, but watch out for him at Muirfield Village in a few weeks.
WHAT ELSE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT ...
Welcome back, Chris Kirk.
The four-time PGA Tour winner, who considered giving up the game last year while battling alcohol abuse and depression, dropped down a level and won the Korn Ferry Tour’s The King & Bear Classic. It was his first win anywhere since 2015, and it helped instill Kirk with some belief that he still has the goods to compete at an elite level. Prior to his KFT victory, he’d missed eight of his past 10 cuts on the PGA Tour.
As for how he’s grown off the course? “I’m a completely different person than I was two years ago,” he said. “When you’re faced with a situation where you’re completely out of control of your own life, it changes things.”
Wishing Kirk the best in his road to recovery.
Whether a player will wear a microphone continues to be a hot topic on Tour, with many star players saying they’re against the idea. Koepka was perhaps the most vehement – and it’s hard to disagree with his logic.
“If the announcers would just shut up and listen,” Koepka said, “you could hear every word that we’re talking about.”
And he’s right!
A player doesn’t need to be mic’d up for the entire round, and he's likely to be uncomfortable anyway. With telecasts utilizing boom mics and less ambient noise on-site without fans, we’re able to pick up more interactions. Some of them are even a little spicy. Walking off the 18th green Sunday, we heard that Carlos Ortiz's caddie may not have raked the back bunker, angering Ryan Palmer. That's the good stuff.
When broadcasters lay out, we all win.
Abe Ancer missed seven greens last week. Out of 72. At Harbour Town Golf Links, one of the most claustrophobic courses on the planet and whose greens are collectively the smallest on the Tour schedule.
That is INSANE ball-striking, shattering the previous record there.
Yes, the course in June played softer and easier than it does the third week of April, but still: Ancer’s 65 greens hit were five more than the previous record (Graham DeLaet, 60). During the 2019 Heritage, Scott Piercy led the field in greens hit ... with 51.
And Ancer still lost!
He’s only won twice as a pro (2015 Nova Scotia Open, 2018 Australian Open) but, now 24th in the world, Ancer is starting to show up on a consistent basis. This was his third runner-up since August.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Quality Human Being: So Yeon Ryu. After winning the Korean Women’s Open on Sunday, she dedicated her $206,000 first-place check to COVID-19 relief efforts. Which follows her giving $100,000 last year to a food pantry charity program. Which follows her gifting half of her second-place winnings at the Women’s Australian Open to those affected by the country’s brushfires. How can you not root for her?
Congratulations: Michelle Wie. Over the weekend the former phenom gave birth to a daughter, Makeena. Wie, 30, plans to return to competition.
Still Vibin': Daniel Berger. A late run of birdies nearly allowed Berger to steal another title, but the Colonial champ settled for a tie for third. Good to see him back.
Worth Monitoring: Rickie Fowler. With a missed cut at the Heritage, he’s now missed four of his last six cuts and failed to finish inside the top 15 in the other two starts. He’s now outside the top 30 in the world for the first time since August 2014. Working his way through a swing change with coach John Tillery, Fowler is now tinkering with his seemingly picture-perfect putting stroke, going cross-handed during the first two rounds last week.
Also Sinking: Dustin Johnson. To make room for Simpson in the top 5, DJ was bumped out for the first time since 2016. Still waiting for him to pop off.
Boneheaded Quote of the Week: Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard traveled privately to Hilton Head with Watney and said he was surprised to learn that his friend contracted the virus. Then he took it a step further: “Unfortunately it had to happen to him. So there’s a lot of other people that probably deserved it a lot more than him, and he’s the one that got it.” Other people are more deserving? Care to list them, in order?
All About Perspective: Vince India. After missing out on a Tour card last fall in heartbreaking fashion, India was back in position on the Korn Ferry Tour, torching the field in St. Augustine with rounds of 63-66-62 to take a four-shot lead. That lead was gone within a few holes in the final round, and he closed with 76 – the worst score of anyone in the top 35 – and tumbled all the way into a massive tie for sixth.
Tweet of the Week: Abe Ancer. Lower the mic. Adjust the camera. Come on, help a brother out!
Better Lucky Than Good: Joseph Bramlett. Stymied behind a tree on the 18th hole at the KFT event, Bramlett hit a “big, high slice” with a 6-iron from 232 yards away that rolled into the cup for an albatross, vaulting him from a tie for 13th in a share of third. “Blind luck,” he said. But he’ll take it.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sungjae Im. The road warrior picked up where he left at Colonial, where he notched a top-10 finish, but he was uncharacteristically out of sorts at Harbour Town, missing the cut following rounds of 73-70. It’s just his second weekend off since last July. Sigh.