Rory McIlroy chatted with Nick Watney on the putting green at Harbour Town on Friday morning before heading out to play the second round of the RBC Heritage.
Hours later, the world No. 1 got a text from Watney that no PGA Tour player wants to see right now. Watney told him he tested positive for COVID-19.
“He was just saying, ‘Look, I hope I didn’t get too close to you,” McIlroy told reporters after his round. “He feels badly that he was here today at the golf course. I said, ‘Look, it’s fine. You never know.’ So I said to him, ‘If I was in your position, I probably would have been here, too. Look, at this point, you just have to concentrate on getting better and getting healthy.’”
Word of Watney’s positive test and withdrawal from the tournament circulated throughout the course on Friday afternoon following the Tour’s official announcement.
Brooks Koepka said he heard on the 17th hole when fellow player Daniel Berger told him.
“I saw (Watney) this morning. I was in the parking lot right next to him,” Koepka said.
He later added, “We’ve got to see what happens. It’s unfortunate Nick got it, but at the same time, hopefully it stays with just him and doesn’t spread because I think we’ll have a big issue on our hands if it keeps going as the weeks continue.”
The PGA Tour has instituted health and safety protocols that include testing prior to arrival at an event, testing when players get to the tournament, and daily questionnaires. The Tour has made available a charter flight from the previous tournament to the next, though some players aren’t using it, including Watney, who used his own transportation to get to Hilton Head, S.C., from Fort Worth after missing the cut last week in the Charles Schwab Challenge. The Tour also has strongly suggested players stay in designated hotels and not private housing, though many are choosing the latter option.
According to the Tour, Watney, 39 and resident of Austin, Texas, tested negative for COVID-19 earlier the week, but notified officials before arriving on site Friday that he was not feeling well. A test was arranged for him, and he received the indication that he tested positive. He withdrew from the tournament and, per Tour regulations, will have to self-isolate
The players have generally expressed confidence in the process and continued to do so on Friday, while acknowledging that a player testing positive for COVID-19 on Tour was a distinct possibility.
“I read a thing today … look, by the end of the year, there’s going to be 200,000 deaths in the U.S. alone from COVID-19,”McIlroy said. “So to think that us on the PGA Tour, none of us was going to get it—I don’t think anyone thought that. I think the consensus was someone is going to get it at some point, and Nick’s the one that’s got it, and he’s self-isolating and doing what he has to do.”
Added Jordan Spieth after his round: “It was not an ‘if’ scenario. You’ve got to plan for it to happen, and hopefully it’s very much contained. First of all, hopefully Nick’s doing well.”
Spieth later noted, “South Carolina is open. If you go anywhere to a restaurant, there’s a lot of people there right now. So I guess that’s probably best-case is that he got it on his own outside.”
Asked if he feels safe being out on tour, McIlroy said, “Oh yeah, for sure. When I do things I’m supposed to do and I’m at the tournament site, I feel very safe.”
Ian Poulter said, “It’s a shame. Obviously, this is why the protocols are in place, and this is why we’re doing all the testing as soon as anyone gets to a venue. I think it’s been exemplary so far, and to have as many people tested in the first two weeks on the PGA Tour, and obviously, Nick to feel slightly unwell today, shows how good a job everyone has done so far.”