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Golfers to face strict virus protocols at The Open

Jun 25, 2021

  • Bob HarigESPN Senior Writer

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    • Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
    • Covered golf for more than 20 years
    • Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University

While COVID-19 restrictions are being eased across the United States, PGA Tour players who travel to The Open in England next month will face protocols and procedures more strict than any they have seen in months.

According to a “Player Information Update” sent this week and obtained by ESPN, The Open at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, will “operate under strict government oversight from the UK government,” according to Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, which runs The Open.

The tournament begins July 15.

Among other things, players will not be allowed to share accommodations and will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing, regardless of vaccination status. They will not be allowed to visit restaurants, pubs or grocery stores — all of which have been allowed for months at PGA Tour events in the United States.

And yet, the tournament is being permitted to have up to 32,000 spectators per day at the venue in the southeastern part of the country. Although exact numbers were not reported at last month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, the spectator capacity being allowed at The Open is likely the largest of any worldwide golf event since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the word has sunk in with the players, many are learning that housing accommodations they had secured previously will not be suitable for The Open. According to the information update, they will be able to choose from a list of hotels provided by the R&A, or they can book their own private residence, but only for use by the player and team and with a maximum of four people.

“Please be aware that the UK has strict contact tracing laws and our ability to stage the Championship relies on persons not creating contacts other than their own player support team group,” the update said.

Each player is permitted to bring one caddie plus two support team members. The latter can be a coach, manager, medical support or translator. Players can also choose to allow one family member to attend, but that person must already be in the U.K., have completed any quarantine requirements and must stay in the same accommodation as the player.

At present, anyone traveling to England from the United States must be tested prior to departure and quarantine for 10 days upon arrival. The quarantine is waived after five days with a negative COVID-19 test. The four people including the player are exempt from the quarantine criteria.

“All accredited players, caddies and player support team members including family members will be subject to strict ‘inner bubble’ restrictions for the duration of their time at the Championship and must not mix with members of the general public in restaurants, supermarkets or other public areas,” the update said. “No one outside the accommodation buddy group is permitted to visit others in self-catering/private accommodation. This would be seen as a breach of the COVID-19 protocols and could lead to withdrawal from the Championship.”

Players are also subject to removal from the tournament if they are deemed to have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Unlike the PGA Tour, which requires daily testing of a person who is deemed to be a contact, the R&A can disqualify such a player without a positive test.

One player agent, who asked not to be identified, told ESPN: “No pubs, no restaurants, no grocery stores and no walking to the course. Crazy! Also, a player cannot go to another’s houses for dinner. We will essentially eat all our meals at the course or have groceries delivered.”

An anonymous player told Golfweek.com: “I’m going to go because it’s the British Open. But I certainly thought about not going. I just can’t believe with the numerous examples of successfully run, safely held tournaments and majors here that they can’t figure out a better situation.

“If someone on your plane tests positive on the way to the British and is sitting anywhere close to you, you’re out, no questions asked, no matter if you’re vaccinated. It’s aggravating that they deem the tournament safe enough for 32,000 fans a day to attend but won’t let a player’s wife or children travel and watch the tournament, nor will they even let players visit a restaurant without threat of disqualification.”

The European Tour has been operating under similar restrictions since its return to action last July. The PGA Tour has gradually lifted various protocols throughout the pandemic. In April, the tour told its membership that players would no longer need to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing if they were fully vaccinated. Contact protocols would also be waived for such players.

The U.K. government recently extended its mask and distancing restrictions until July 19 out of fear for the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 that was first detected in India. The United States is on the country’s Amber list for travel, which requires testing and quarantine.

Pete Cowen, a U.K.-based instructor who works with several players, including Rory McIlroy, had planned to share a large RV with several caddies near the driving range, he told the Telegraph newspaper in the U.K. Those plans are now off because of the restrictions.

“It wasn’t cheap, but it seemed the wisest option in the current climate,” Cowen said. “But we’ve just found out that we are not allowed to stay together because it breaks the government protocols.”

Cowen later added: “There are going to be 32,000 fans allowed in every day and they’re saying we can’t stay in anything other than the dedicated hotels — most of which are already sold out — because we’d be mixing with the public. And we can’t stay together, like we have on the PGA Tour for the last year.

“We have all been vaccinated and will have been tested before we are allowed in. This ‘bubble’ we have created between ourselves has produced no problems at all.

“It makes no sense at all when there will be 60,000 at Wembley [for soccer], 140,000 at Silverstone [racetrack] and all those at Wimbledon on the weekend before — sitting next to each other. I suppose I should be grateful I am going at all, as initially the wording of the [regulations] made me believe instructors would be banned.”

The R&A said in its update that the restrictions are required by the U.K. government.

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