Nick Watney has had plenty of free time since becoming the PGA Tour’s first player to test positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago during the RBC Heritage.
His time in self-isolation was predictable. He FaceTimed with his kids back home in Austin, Texas, he honed his skills on an Xbox and he binge-watched Netflix. So much Netflix.
“It’s a strange existence,” he said with a laugh this week when contacted by GolfChannel.com via phone.
During his 10-day self-isolation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., which ended on Monday, he also spent a good amount of time learning. Being quarantined probably isn’t the best way to self-educate, but the 39-year-old certainly made the most his time.
The Tour connected Watney with an infectious disease expert and he spent hours each day reading about COVID-19, how it’s transmitted and how it can be slowed.
“I’ve had time,” he said, “and I’m definitely trying to learn how to mitigate any risk going forward.”
Being the first Tour player to test positive it’s certain the Tour learned plenty from Watney’s plight as well. His case, which occurred when he arrived at the course on Friday to prepare for the second round, raised questions about results management and how to balance the scales between safety and competitive necessity.
To be clear, Watney was largely asymptomatic on that Friday at Harbour Town Golf Links. He explained he was tired on Thursday after the first round, but then that day began before 4 a.m. so it was hardly cause for alarm.
Health officials onsite checked his temperature. No problem. He was asked all of the familiar questions:
Have you had a fever or have you felt feverish within the past three days?
Do you have a cough, chills, headache or sore throat?
Have you been in close contact with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 individual in the past 14 days?
It was only Watney’s WHOOP strap that alerted him to a potential problem when the device recorded a spike in his respiratory data.
“I’ve seen people say that I was at the course with symptoms and that’s just not true,” Watney said. “If I didn’t have the WHOOP strap telling me something might be wrong - I didn’t feel any type of way like I had the virus.”
On Tuesday, the Tour reported a sixth player, Chad Campbell, had tested positive for COVID-19 and was bound for self-isolation. Given the general uncertainty of the virus, opinions on how the circuit has handled its return amid a pandemic range from cries to cancel the rest of the season to alarming indifference.
Perhaps even more concerning than Campbell’s positive test was news that three players – Brandon Wu, Taylor Montgomery and Jonathan Hodge – had tested positive at this week’s Korn Ferry Tour event and had been forced to withdraw.
Three positive tests in one day is approaching something resembling a cluster, but the Tour remains resolute and it has math on its side.
“A total of 247 players have undergone on-site testing since the Korn Ferry Tour’s return to golf on June 11, and [Tuesday’s threesome] are the only tour players to test positive for COVID-19 via on-site testing,” the Tour said in a press release.
Perhaps the Tour’s only mistake is not owning it the way Major League Baseball has. Still weeks away from restarting, officials in MLB have stated clearly there will be positive tests. Ignoring this inevitability is simply ignoring the precious little we do know about the virus.
Just ask Watney. After two weeks in quarantine, he understands better than most the challenges the Tour faces.
“I guess that’s one of the things about this virus that has the world a bit scared, is because there is so much unknown,” Watney said. “The Tour is doing a nice job of reacting to what happened these first three weeks and altering the protocols. I think the guidelines have done well. I don’t know that I would make any changes at this point.”
The five-time Tour winner doesn’t pretend to be a coronavirus expert, but he has seen first hand the circuit’s protocols in action following his positive test.
“The contact tracing has shown that guys have been identified early and there hasn’t been a big outbreak. That’s been important to keeping the Tour going,” he said.
Watney obviously didn’t want to be the first player to test positive, and he spent a good amount of time in quarantine lamenting the idea that he could have passed the virus on to others, but he also understands it was inevitable and that the Tour’s plan is working.