All eyes will be on the 2020 Travelers Championship this week in Cromwell, Conn., and it won’t just be about the golf. After Nick Watney became the first player to test positive for COVID-19 at the RBC Heritage last week at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, the PGA Tour is holding its collective breath waiting to see if it’s an isolated case or the start of something more serious.
The world best golfers began arriving at TPC River Highlands on Monday for the annual event that is the first on the PGA Tour to be played on schedule since the pandemic began. No fans will be in attendance and the list of volunteers, which normally numbers 4,000 has been whittled to about 300. Everyone on the grounds will be tested during the week by either the PGA Tour or a separate testing program being implemented by tournament organizers.
“All players, caddies and tour officials will be tested in the Tour program,” tournament director Nathan Grube told TheNYExtra.com “But given the environment and what’s happening in New England we talked to Travelers and made an agreement that we are going to test everybody on property. We have a different program going the same time the Tour has their program going. We’ve been working with all of the volunteers, vendors, television teams, police security, firemen, and manufacture reps, anybody on property.”
Testing everyone at the event has been a “logistical challenge,” trying to coordinate schedules and procedures. “We just want to make sure that after the tournament is over when we look back, we can say, we did everything we possibly could to be as safe as possible,” Grube said.
The Travelers Championship with a purse of $7,400,000 is regarded as one of the most fan-friendly tournaments on the PGA Tour and a popular stop for touring players, normally coming off a rugged U.S. Open. While COVID-19 caused the cancellation or postponement of several tournaments including this year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y, the Travelers was tabbed as one of the first four events once the Tour returned to action.
The Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial came off without incident two weeks ago, but Watney, 39, tested positive before Friday’s second round at Hilton Head after being negative from an initial test taken on Tuesday.
Despite being symptomatic on Friday, Watney, a five-time PGA Tour, was allowed to remain at the golf course and continue his preparation while awaiting test results. The 11 people he came into contact with during the week were all tested Friday and were negative. Watney is now in self-isolation in South Carolina for at least 10 days.
A positive test was scary, but not unexpected, and Grube said information gathered at Colonial and Harbour Town will be invaluable this week.
“All the tournament directors are having weekly calls and sometimes daily calls,” Grube said. “People were sending us pictures every day. ‘This is what we did at player registration. This is what we did at caddie registration. This is how we sent out water to the groups.’ It was such a good flow of information.”
Being part of the restart has helped the Travelers attract a strong field. The top five players in the world ranking are competing: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson. Bubba Watson will be looking for his fourth win in Cromwell, while two-time champion Phil Mickelson and 2017 champion Jordan Spieth are also in the field along with 15 of the top 20 players in the world rankings.
“We’re happy we’re part of bringing sport back and part of bringing golf back,” Grube said. “Our fans are part of what makes this place so special and so unique. They’ll definitely be missed. But I think they understand.”
With an estimated 200,000 in attendance over the course of the week, the 2019 tournament raised an estimated $2.1 million for the various charities the tournament supports. With no Pro-Am and no corporate tents to generate added income payouts to charitable funds figured to be scarce this year. But the majority of the sponsors have agreed to make their fees donations instead of rolling it over into next year. “We’re going to be able to give a significant number to charities,” Grube said. “It’s been a very, very different year with how much is going on.”