ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – It didn’t take long for news of Nick Watney’s positive COVID-19 test to make its way through the ranks.
The third round of the Korn Ferry Tour’s King & Bear Classic was wrapping up as social media began to swirl regarding Watney’s withdrawal, and by the time players arrived for Saturday’s fourth and final round it was a hot topic of discussion.
News of Watney’s test came at an important juncture for the developmental circuit. There are now two Korn Ferry events in the books, the latest being a one-shot win by PGA Tour veteran Chris Kirk. But those were conducted within close proximity of each other, with a large percentage of the field able to drive to both events in northeast Florida. Sunday will mark the first official Korn Ferry charter flight for players and caddies as they head to the Utah Championship more than 2,000 miles away.
The testing protocols established during the break will remain in place. Anyone looking to board the charter plane had to take (and pass) a COVID-19 saliva test no later than Friday morning. Players who take the charter will not be re-tested upon arrival, but anyone arriving to Utah via other means will have to take a test before accessing the tournament grounds.
The preliminary testing window has already turned up several positive cases, including one Korn Ferry player and five caddies. But in each of those instances the test results were determined before the individuals ever got to the tournament, so the contact tracing concerns that Watney’s case sparked were not as pressing. But the news that the “bubble” has been infiltrated by a positive result, even a few states away, has left some veterans feeling uneasy.
“I guess I’m a little apprehensive right now. I feel like the longer we’re out, the more susceptible we are to positive tests,” said Johnson Wagner, a player director on the PGA Tour’s policy board. “So I’m just hoping this is a wake-up call to everybody on Tour, that just because you get tested on Monday and pass, you’re not impervious to this virus.”
Korn Ferry Tour president Alex Baldwin was on-site Saturday to host the post-round ceremony as Kirk got his first win in five years, and she expressed confidence in the circuit’s protocols in the wake of Watney’s test result, with the first charter flight less than 24 hours away.
“We have a very well thought-out plan, and it is one that we are following very, very closely,” Baldwin said. “I think there’s always, always room for continued improvement. Behaviorally, we’re just used to certain norms and certain customs, not just on the golf course but in life. But we’re here to continue to remind everyone and reinforce those guidelines.”
Baldwin’s comments were echoed by veteran Scott Langley, who is serving this year as the chairman of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Player Advisory Council. Langley will play in next week’s event but won’t be on the charter flight, opting instead to go home for Father’s Day before flying commercially to Utah.
“I think the plan that we have in place is really solid. If everybody abides by it perfectly, we shouldn’t really run into too many issues,” Langley said. “Even if you do kind of follow everything in perfect accordance, it’s impossible to eliminate a risk like this. The only way to eliminate it is to lock our doors and stay home, and I don’t know if that’s the answer.”
But it’s the execution of the plan, not the plan itself, that has come under more scrutiny in the wake of Watney’s result. Like Wagner, James Hahn is a player director on the PGA Tour’s policy board, and this week marked his first start anywhere since the Genesis Invitational. The 38-year-old expressed concerns over the lack of strict adherence to the Tour’s guidelines that he witnessed during his T-58 finish in St. Augustine.
“It’s hard to force everybody to abide by the rules that we put in place for them,” Hahn said. “The people that are older, that have families, that have more to lose maybe, are taking it more serious. The people that think they’re invincible, mainly the younger crowd, some caddies that just don’t want to give up their lifestyle, we’ve already heard a couple stories.”
Hahn likened the situation to a group of drivers collectively obeying the speed limit on a highway while a single car races down the left lane “at 100 mph.”
“We’re all policing each other, and we’re telling that guy to slow down. ‘Hey, social distance, don’t go out to a bar, don’t eat in a restaurant. Get take out,’” Hahn said. “But they’re not listening. So they’re speeding, and it’s just a matter of time until that person causes a crash and stops the freeway.
“The way things are going on this tour, someone will test positive and infect other players if people don’t change the way that they’re living their life and going back to work.”
Change is in the works for Wagner, even if it doesn’t necessarily apply to his personal behavior. The three-time PGA Tour winner expects to play again on the Korn Ferry in two weeks in Colorado, where the circuit will again conduct a Wednesday-Saturday event to allow for an extra day of logistics in conducting a charter flight to San Antonio. But once on the ground in the Rockies, he plans to be a bit more aggressive when addressing behavior patterns he views from his peers.
“I’ve seen people eating in restaurants, and I’ve had to bite my tongue and not say anything. But I’m going to start saying stuff now, because it’s too important for us to stay playing golf,” Wagner said. “If guys want to continue to have a chance to make a living, then we need to abide by the PGA Tour guidelines.”
Langley described a sense of “selfish motivation” that he hopes will guide adherence to the guidelines. No player wants to spend 10 or 14 days in quarantine, as Watney will now do, and miss out on two playing opportunities while potentially sidetracking momentum for even longer. Seasons and promotions out here have been determined by far less.
He also believes that Watney’s result could jolt any players who have been “a little lax” in the first two weeks into adopting a more stringent approach.
“You can’t put your finger on what’s the perfect thing to do in these moments,” Langley said. “But I feel like we’ve gotten as close as we can with our plan that we have.”
But just as the PGA Tour will now be judged based on the efficacy of its contact tracing efforts and attempts to further close off the proverbial bubble, so too will the Korn Ferry’s relative success play out with another batch of test results in a few weeks’ time. The circuit is officially back up and running after a successful fortnight in Florida, but as Watney’s results plainly showed, even the surest of footing is a bit more tenuous in the era of the coronavirus.
“There’s a lot of people in this country that aren’t working. I feel like we’re very lucky, and the Tour’s done a great job to get us to a place where we can actually earn money now,” Wagner said. “I would like to see people take a little more responsibility and be a little more serious about it.”