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Sobel: As COVID-19 Cases Rise, PGA TOUR Coping with Impossible Situation

Sobel: As COVID-19 Cases Rise, PGA TOUR Coping with Impossible Situation article feature image

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In the gambling world, we deal in absolutes. You’re either right or you’re wrong; you either win or you lose.

Professional golf is similar, in many ways.

Sure, players often speak about the process, but in the end, it’s a results-oriented business.

You either make birdie or bogey; you either break par or you don’t.

You either win or you lose.

The biggest hot-button issue in the world right now – and yes, in our very, very small golf-enmeshed corner of the world, too – is what to do about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Granted, there are a few absolutes here. Stay safe? We can all agree on that. Get tested regularly? Another no-brainer.

It’s those gray areas, though, which are more difficult to wrap our minds around, especially when we’re so accustomed to debates being answered by final results.

In this world of absolutes, it’s impossible for some observers to understand the major takeaway of PGA TOUR golf tournaments being contested over the past two-and-a-half weeks: There is no right or wrong answer for how to approach this moving forward.

In the past six days, players Nick Watney and Cameron Champ, and caddies Ken Comboy and Ricky Elliott have all reportedly tested positive, despite largely remaining in the so-called bubble which has attempted to keep all of them ensconced from the public to limit their exposure.

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These positive tests aren’t necessarily terrible news. This is how the protocols are supposed to work: Players and caddies are routinely tested and if any are positive for COVID-19, then they’re removed from the bubble and obligated to self-isolate.

The percentage of positive cases on the PGA TOUR is considerably less than the national average, so perhaps it can be suggested that these standards are indeed working.

The gray area, however, can be found in the unknown. There are officials in Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters who are fond of the phrase, “I don’t deal in hypotheticals.”

That’s all well and good when we’re discussing potential FedEx Cup projections, but when it comes to the current pandemic and how it’s impacting the sport, hypotheticals are situations in which they very much need to deal.

During his Wednesday afternoon impromptu press conference from this week’s Travelers Championship venue, PGA TOUR commissioner Jay Monahan was asked repeatedly about the tipping point.

Essentially, what the number of positive cases would have to be for a cancelation or postponement of either a specific tournament or a long-term portion of the schedule.


It’s clear that the number isn’t two. We’ve already had that many players test positive and yet, the show will continue at TPC River Highlands, starting on schedule Thursday morning.

It’s also clear that the number is something less than 155, unless the powers-that-be are so determined to finish a tournament that the last player standing who continues to test negative will automatically be deemed the winner.

And so, what is it? What would be that tipping point? Monahan wouldn’t commit to a number.

“There are all kinds of scenarios that could play out,” the commissioner said. “We feel like we’ve tried to contemplate all of those scenarios in creating the program and the protocols that we have such that if you are going to have positive cases, they are contained or they are containable, and we are going to avoid that scenario.

“There certainly are scenarios where if you had a significant number of positive tests, or you could play scenarios where that would come into play and you’d have to be thinking along those lines. But for us, we’re confident with the plan we have and we are very hopeful that we are not going to be in that position.”

Not that we should’ve expected a specific answer – if there are 11 positive results, then we’re done! – but it’s still difficult to digest a circumstantial response in such a black and white world.

We’re also rapidly approaching when the PGA TOUR will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

If (or more correctly, when) tournaments are held after players and caddies in the bubble have tested positive, officials will be subject to criticism from those who believe this safe space isn’t safe enough.

And if tournaments are at some point canceled because they do indeed reach whatever the tipping point might be, they will similarly be subject to criticism from those who believe they’re being too cautious with their decision-making.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. There is no black and white.

In a corner of the world which so predominantly deals in absolutes, the show must go on, but the situation will remain indefinitely fluid.

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