As the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s approaches in two weeks, the sense of celebration about its return after being canceled last year is being tempered by the challenges facing many players headed to England.
Even as a significant portion of the world is re-emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the R&A informed players last week of strict restrictions and protocols they will face at the year’s final major championship.
For anyone who thinks the pandemic has passed, it’s a harsh reminder that it continues.
Players will not be allowed to stay together in larger houses as they often do at the Open Championship. They will not be allowed to eat in restaurants or visit pubs while at the Open Championship. Any family members joining them – only one allowed per player – will be required to quarantine for 10 days upon their arrival (which can be reduced to five days with a negative COVID-19 test).
And yet ...
The R&A recently announced it will allow 32,000 spectators on site each day of the championship, the largest announced crowds of any tournament since the pandemic halted professional golf more than 15 months ago.
If it sounds like a mixed message, it is.
That doesn’t mean one group or another – the R&A or the United Kingdom rulesmakers – is at fault. Both sides have justifiable reasons for what they’re doing. It means, however, the world is still a long way from functioning the way it once did.
While the restrictions are a point of frustration for players, no top player has indicated he will bypass the Open because of that, at least not yet.
Similarly, several top players (Dustin Johnson, Sergio García, Louis Oosthuizen and Tyrrell Hatton among them) have chosen to not participate in the Olympics in Japan because, in part, of the strict guidelines in place for athletes there.
While players have cited other reasons for not playing in the Olympics – a busy summer schedule and a focus on the upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs – it didn’t help that players must limit their activity to the golf course and their accommodations while in Japan. They will not be allowed to attend other Olympic events and will be subject to daily testing even if they are fully vaccinated.
That’s not exactly the full Olympic experience that was so good, Rickie Fowler had the Games’ symbol tattooed on one arm in 2016.
In an update sent to players by the R&A and obtained by multiple media organizations including Global Golf Post, the Open Championship will be subject to “strict oversight from the UK government” when it is played in Sandwich, England, beginning July 15.
At a time when the PGA Tour has begun to loosen its COVID-19-related protocols – players, caddies and officials no longer will be tested as of July 1, although non-vaccinated players will be required to provide their own test results each week – the Open Championship will be both open and tightly monitored depending on which side of the gallery ropes one stands.
In many ways it will look and feel like the Open Championship with more than 30,000 fans gathered at St. George’s.
One player manager said the restrictions add to an already difficult week in terms of location but added, “It’s still the Open and players will navigate around the challenges.”
In a statement this week, the R&A said: “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 minimise the risks. We fully recognise the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and that case numbers are rising in many parts of the country.
“The UK has strict contact tracing legislation in place and we are creating a minimised risk environment to protect players, caddies, officials and staff. It is extremely important that we all follow the protocols. The players and their management teams have been very accommodating and appreciate the challenges that the pandemic is creating for all of us.”
The easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the United Kingdom has been delayed until July 19, adding to the complications surrounding the Open that ends the day before. A number of executives from golf organizations and representatives from prominent equipment companies will not go to the Open this year. Much of the television coverage will be handled from remote locations. On-site media numbers are reduced.
Even as mask-wearing plummets in the United States, it’s a sign of the times elsewhere, particularly in England where new COVID-19 cases are on the rise again.
In an e-mail to players, the R&A outlined restrictions that limit each player to a four-person traveling party including himself, his caddie and two others. If one of those is a family member, that person will have been required to quarantine for 10 days in advance even though players and their support staff are being allowed to bypass the quarantine.
“All accredited players, caddies and player support team members including family members will be subject to strict ‘inner bubble’ restrictions for the duration of their time at the Championship and must not mix with members of the general public in restaurants, supermarkets or other public areas,” the R&A message said.
In years past, groups of players including Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jason Dufner and others in their party have shared a house for the Open Championship. Not this year.
“Everyone within the inner bubble will have two accommodation options: Official hotel accommodations or private self-catering accommodations with a maximum of four persons per property,” the R&A said. “Multiple players or multiple caddies are not permitted to share private self-catering accommodations.”
Originally, this would have been the 150th Open Championship with the Old Course at St. Andrews as the stage. Instead it’s last year’s Open Championship pushed to this year, with St. Andrews moved to next year.
In many ways it will look and feel like the Open Championship with more than 30,000 fans gathered at St. George’s. Another champion golfer of the year will be crowned after Shane Lowry has had possession of the Claret Jug for two years.
It’s a moment to celebrate.
Outside the bubble.
Top: The names of past Open champions engraved on the Claret Jug