The Open Championship has long been a bonanza for bellyaching by professional golfers, regardless of where the game’s oldest major is contested. British weather is too fickle (accepted as fact by all but disputatious Scots). British food is too lardaceous (“Do you have any vegetables that aren’t fried?” a former editor once asked a waiter. Answer: “No.”). British water pressure makes showering feel like being peed upon (if only the water were that warm). And that’s all before the capricious linksland bounces that short-circuit the minds of those accustomed to hitting a golf ball through the air and seeing it stop in proximity to where it landed.
This year’s Open at Royal St. George’s should have been this year’s Open at St. Andrews, but because last year’s Open at Royal St. George’s didn’t happen, this year’s Open at St. Andrews has become next year’s Open at St. Andrews, while last year’s Open at Royal St. George’s becomes this year’s. One thing hasn’t changed: the griping. What has changed is that it has commenced much earlier than usual.
This week the R&A outlined for Open competitors the COVID-19 safety protocols that will be in place for the tournament. For players, caddies and coaches who have enjoyed the successful but less stringent guidelines on the PGA Tour, the R&A’s communique went down about as well as a haggis breakfast with a hangover.
While players are exempt from Britain’s mandatory quarantine, they will be required to provide a negative COVID test within 72 hours of entering the country and another on arrival at Royal St. George’s, unless they travel on a charter flight from the Scottish Open. Tests are required regardless of vaccination status. Players will not be allowed to visit restaurants, grocery stores or bars where they might mingle with the public. But the real source of angst—like generations of Open-going professionals before them—is accommodations.
They must stay in either an official hotel or in private self-catering homes with a maximum of four occupants, all four of whom must be part of the player’s support group—defined as caddies, coaches, medical support or translators. Alert fans will already have noticed this isn’t sufficient manpower to transport Bryson DeChambeau’s gadgetry to the range, much less accommodate the rest of his entourage. Players are also allowed one accredited family member. Unlike players and support teams, family members are not exempt from quarantine—which is currently a minimum of five days. That means many are likely to skip the trip, which would be devastating for Brit tabloid media’s traditional WAGs coverage.
The ban on visiting pubs, restaurants and grocery stories also applies to support teams and family members, and the verboten locations also includes the accommodations of other players. “No one outside the accommodation buddy group is permitted to visit others in self-catering/private accommodation,” the R&A warned. “This would be seen as a breach of the COVID-19 protocols and could lead to withdrawal from the Championship.’’
There go Jay Monahan’s hopes of a detente dinner between DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.
Players are also subject to being disqualified if they are in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The PGA Tour currently requires daily testing of players deemed to be a contact but withdrawal only if the player tests positive, as happened to Jon Rahm at the Memorial Tournament. The R&A gave no indication that a positive result would be needed before booting a player from the Open for being a contact.
“Our absolute priority is maintaining the safety of the players, fans and all involved in the Open and we are doing as much as we can to minimize the risks,” the R&A said. “We fully recognize the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and that case numbers are rising in many parts of the country. The U.K. has strict contact tracing legislation in place and we are creating a minimized risk environment to protect players, caddies, officials and staff.”
The triggering word there is “fans”—32,000 of them, to be exact. About 80 percent of a typical daily crowd at an Open. Complaints from players, coaches and caddies center on the presence of so many fans while they must exist in a contained bubble (cost is the unspoken subtext here, since caddies and coaches often share homes to save money but can’t do so under these rules). In fact, protocols are strict for spectators too.
Every fan in attendance at Royal St. George’s is required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in the previous 48 hours. A test taken on Monday admits a spectator for Tuesday and Wednesday, but if they want to return later in the week then another test is needed. Fans will also be kept socially distanced from players at all times. This hardly suggests a mob of potentially viral spectators running rampant.
We don’t have to search hard these days to find COVID guidelines that are excessive, arbitrary and non-sensical. Some of the R&A’s rules seem so too, not least the puzzling disregard for vaccination status in deciding how insulated a person must remain for the week. In its effort to return fans (and revenue) to the only major championship that wasn’t held in 2020, the R&A is adopting a lockdown mentality that seems overbearing. But it’s not wholly unreasonable.
Britain has suffered more than 128,000 COVID-related deaths and is seeing a spike in cases due to the worrisome Delta variant. After 15 months, there exists in Britain the same frustration and anger about travel and social restrictions and about government mismanagement as you’ll find in most other affected nations. The precariousness of this social and political tinderbox only adds to the importance of this summer’s effort to return British fans of all sports to stadia. The Open is a major test of that strategy. In that environment, it’s not beyond the pale to ask players and their teams to suck it up for a week in a comparatively comfortable bubble.
Those who consider that to be an intolerable burden are free to vote with their feet and stay home, but public grumbling about being inconvenienced amid a deadly pandemic just makes golfers look like the whiny one percent. Sometimes a professional just has to forget about things out of their control and focus on the job at hand. This is one of those times. And if that’s simply too big an imposition, well the PGA Tour has an opposite field event that week in Kentucky.
Published at Golfweek.com, June 27, 2021.