CROMWELL, Conn. — When Sergio Garcia sank his final putt Thursday on an 18th green enveloped by a natural amphitheater customarily filled with thousands of fans, the golf ball’s rattle around inside the hole could be heard from 30 yards away. A minute later, as Garcia ascended a hill, the only sound was his pencil scratching a last number on a scorecard.
The PGA Tour’s officials have said they are proud to be at the vanguard of major American sports returning to competition after the coronavirus shut down athletic events nationwide. But on Thursday at the Travelers Championship — the third fan-free event in the tour’s comeback — the noiselessness was an eerie contrast to a growing chatter about how much longer professional golf’s traveling circus would keep hopscotching around the country.
Golf’s grand experiment to prove that an outdoor, noncontact sport operating on a nomad’s schedule could return safely during a pandemic was showing signs of the stress that comes with attempting the unprecedented.
Denny McCarthy tested positive on Friday after waking up feeling “achy” and withdrew from the Travelers event. A playing partner from the first round, Bud Cauley, tested negative but withdrew from the tournament for precautionary reasons. The third golfer in that group, Matt Wallace, also tested negative and will continue to play.
On Wednesday, four golfers withdrew from the tournament because of Covid-19 concerns, including Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson, the fourth- and fifth-ranked players in the world. Koepka departed after his caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive for the virus as part of the PGA Tour’s multilayered testing system. Koepka’s brother, Chase, who had also qualified for the tournament, also withdrew after having played a Tuesday practice round with Brooks and Elliott. Earlier in the day, the former United States Open champion Graeme McDowell announced he would not compete because his caddie, Ken Comboy, tested positive for the coronavirus this week.
Simpson, who won last week’s PGA Tour event in South Carolina, withdrew and chose to isolate himself because a family member had recently tested positive for the virus. Two other golfers, Nick Watney and Cameron Champ, had already withdrawn from the tournament after positive test results in the previous 10 days.
The departures sent a jolt through the golf community and had Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, warning players of “serious repercussions” if they did not follow new, stricter safety protocols. Shane Lowry, the reigning British Open champion, said when asked if the withdrawals had jarred his colleagues: “The first couple of weeks have been kind of a kick in the backside to all of us.”
Scores of golfers Thursday went out of their way to praise the safety measures imposed by the tour, including the world’s top-ranked golfer, Rory McIlroy.
“There’s been almost 3,000 tests administered and the percentage of positive tests is under a quarter of a percent,” McIlroy said. “I think as a whole, it’s been going really well.”
But McIlroy tellingly conceded there were “loose ends” that needed to be tied up, which may be at the crux of the matter. Many top players have been calling for their brethren to be far more diligent in adhering to social-distancing recommendations on the golf course, because the execution of those guidelines has been spotty at best. Players routinely bump fists, talk face-to-face with their caddies and stand shoulder-to-shoulder on tees and greens.
Moreover, as other sports contemplate resuming competitive play within a so-called bubble for the players, golf has patently experienced how difficult it can be to maintain a safe zone once the athletes leave the playing arena.
Many golfers have adhered to tour guidelines, which require going to considerable lengths to avoid contact with others. The tour chartered a plane to ferry golfers to tournaments, disallowed family members at courses, and advised golfers to sequester themselves in private, rented homes or tour-approved hotels. Some golfers and caddies, however, have been seen eating together at restaurants. And in other cases, with a field as deep as 148 players, the tour has no way to restrict what players are doing with their evenings.
Since Wednesday’s positive test results, leading players are trying to send the message that dicey individual choices run the risk of putting the entire tour back on hiatus.
“If we start doing whatever we want, all of us, then it probably will be totally out of control and then it could get dangerous,” said Garcia, who said this week’s positive test results were “a wake-up call.”
“It’s not back to normal,” he added. “It’s not what it used to be, and we have to realize that. We have to be trying to be as careful as possible.”
The tour has taken new steps in hopes of keeping the circuit moving along on a weekly schedule that currently stretches throughout the year. Earlier this week, the tour distributed to every player a Whoop band, a device worn on the wrist or upper arm to monitor various medical data. A Whoop band worn by Watney had alerted him to an elevated respiratory rate and led to a second test for the coronavirus last week — just days after Watney had tested negative for the virus.
Monahan announced on Wednesday that players boarding the tour-sponsored charter jet would be tested not only the day before the flight leaves but also shortly after it lands. He said that fitness trailers would now be on site to keep golfers from visiting local gyms and that players’ coaches were now part of the tour’s testing protocol. In talking to reporters, Monahan avoided specifically saying how many positive test results it would take for the PGA Tour to shut down.
Keegan Bradley, who won the 2011 P.G.A. Championship, was asked Thursday what might happen if 10, or 15, or 20 players tested positive for Covid-19.
“If we get to that point, I think that none of us will be playing,” Bradley answered.