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'Everybody's gotta be diligent': PGA Tour plays on, but with increased testing starting in Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The PGA Tour will keep on swinging, including next week at Detroit Golf Club, even amid a recent mini-surge of positive COVID-19 tests.

Five players have withdrawn from this week's Travelers Championship in Connecticut, after one player and two caddies tested positive for coronavirus. Cameron Champ tested positive and now won't be able to play in Detroit next week, while Graeme McDowell also withdrew this week and said he's now taking two weeks off after his caddie tested positive. McDowell, a former U.S. Open champion, also was scheduled to play the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit next week.

Scott Stallings, bottom left, tees off from the practice range while working out ahead of the Travelers Championship in Connecticut on Wednesday.

Superstar Brooks Koepka, whose caddie also tested positive, his brother Chase Koepka and Webb Simpson, another former U.S. Open champion and last week's winner in South Carolina, also pulled out of this week's tournament out of caution. None had been committed to the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

"We feel a great responsibility to inspire people and to be in their living rooms Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday," PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said in a hastily called press conference Wednesday. "We feel like we're on a path where we're going to be able to continue to sustain our return to golf.

"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."

The PGA Tour, now in its third week of the restart to the 2019-20 schedule, is instituting some stricter safety measures, starting this week in Connecticut, after a conference call with members of the players' advisory council Tuesday night.

The additional safety measures were outlined in a detailed memo from Monahan sent to players Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by The News.

More: A g'day for the Rocket Mortgage Classic: Aussie, former world No. 1 Jason Day commits

For starters, all players and caddies will be tested on-site upon arriving at that week's tournament. Previously, those players who traveled by the PGA Tour-sponsored charter from one event to the next were tested before boarding the plane, and then didn't have to be tested at the next stop. Also, players' coaches now will be subject to testing; and starting with the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the PGA Tour will have a fitness trailer on-site to discourage players from working out at off-site gyms. Players also are being provided high-tech wristbands that monitor vitals and provide warning signs of disease. That convinced Nick Watney to get tested last week; he tested positive and withdrew from the RBC Heritage.

Socially distancing, which by many players' accounts has been relatively lax during the restart, continues to be strongly encouraging, with Monahan saying Wednesday that there could be strict disciplinary measures for players who don't follow the guidelines. The PGA Tour has a fund set up to allow a stipend check for players who test positive and have to withdraw, but that check is subject to following protocols.

"Going into Colonial a couple weeks ago, we had this big plan," said Brian Stuard, a longtime PGA Tour member from Jackson and an Oakland University alum who is playing this week at the Travelers. "But it just seemed like, we were being diligent, but not the socially distancing on the golf course. That wasn't really taking place between player and caddie, and the players.

Brian Stuard

"Last week at Hilton Head, it was pretty busy, a lot of people there, vacationers, and that kind of opened some eyes, and then you see a few positive tests.

"From here on out, everybody's gotta be as diligent as they can be."

One of the game's top golfers, Justin Thomas, made headlines last week when he called the activity around town in South Carolina, one of 27 states seeing a spike in COVID-19, was an "absolute zoo," 

Stuard said he and his caddie have come up with a socially distancing system, where Stuard is the only one to handle the clubs, even for cleaning. (Shouldn't that mean a pay cut for the caddie? "You'd think so," Stuard said, with a laugh.) Of the course, Stuard has pretty much kept to his hotel — which is what Detroit tournament officials will strongly encourage next week, with the players holing up at Shinola downtown. Rocket Mortgage Classic tournament officials have set up a lengthy list of food-delivery options.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic will be the fourth stop on the PGA Tour's restart, which yielded no positive tests the first week, one the second, and then the mini-rash this week. The Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA Tour's feeder system, hasn't had any positive tests at its tournament this week in Utah.

In total, the PGA Tour said it has issued 2,757 tests, with seven positives.

Monahan said the PGA Tour expected positive tests along the way, and he wouldn't identify a specific number, or a tipping point, that it would have to see to consider another shutdown.

ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COMMITMENTS

"We knew this was a possibility," Stuard said. "I'm sure we thought people were going to test positive. We have to be really responsible for our actions, and try to minimize the risk for everybody involved."

The PGA Tour has done that to a large extent by holding its first five tournaments without fans, including the second annual Rocket Mortgage Classic, set for July 2-5. The first tournament expected to allow fans is the Memorial in Ohio, two weeks after the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Monahan said that remains the plan, to reintroduce fans at Jack Nicklaus' tournament, but that the situation remains fluid.

At the Rocket, on-grounds activity will be severely limited, to players, caddies, essential staff and a severely scaled-down roster of volunteers. Even the media will be greatly diminished, from more than 500 issued credentials in 2019 to less than 50 this year.

Monahan said he expects additional safety measures and the protocols as the season continues to progress.

The PGA Tour and NASCAR were the first two major professional sports outlets to restart their seasons, with the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all scheduled to get going again sometime in July.

"I'm concerned," Monahan said. "But I'm also confident with the program, the protocols we've put in place.

"We feel like we're gonna be in a position to sustain our return."

Rocket Mortgage Classic officials didn't have an immediate comment Wednesday.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984