After missing two of the past three majors, Rickie Fowler will be in the field for the 149th Open Championship that begins in eight days. But like a growing number of players, Fowler doesn’t sound ecstatic about the framework in place to compete for the claret jug.
Last month the R&A announced it would welcome 32,000 per day to Royal St George’s to mark the Open’s return following last year’s cancellation. While that attendance figure signals a somewhat return to pre-COVID normalcy, the restrictions in play for those in the tournament strike a different tone. Last week the R&A sent a five-page update to players, caddies, agents and coaches regarding health and safety protocols, an update that received a harsh response from those constituents, many believing said protocols were too stringent. Fowler joined that chorus with his comments following the third round at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Fowler’s Thursday playing partner, Hideki Matsuyama, was forced to withdraw from the Detroit event after registering a positive COVID-19 test. In response to a question asking if his proximity to Matsuyama worried Fowler in regard to his Open status, Fowler initially waved it off, only to underline his frustrations with the R&A’s guidelines.
“No. I mean, I’m vaccinated or whatever you want to call the shots,” Fowler said after a third-round 68. “I guess they’re not – they’re vaccines, but unfortunately I know going over there, it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not.
“Yeah, there’s definitely some concerns. Guys have been talking to me or have been talking to other guys, been making calls or sending texts back and forth with some of the people with the Open just with any questions or concerns that we have because there’s multiple things that come up as far as if there happens to be a couple people on the plane that test positive when you get there, you know, what happens with that. Obviously we’re all going into our own small bubbles, can’t be around other players.”
Fowler ended his comments by pointing out, to him, a bit of hypocrisy in play with the R&A’s protocols: “It seems like us as players, we’re jumping through some hurdles and dodging bullets and they’re having 32,000 fans a day at the tournament, so I don’t know. I can’t really answer questions clearly with all that going on.”
Though there have been worries about players skipping the event due to the restrictions, only two players – Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim – have publicly dropped out of the competition, but their decisions were spurred by a focus on the Olympics rather than protocol concerns.
In response to some of the protocol backlash the R&A issued this statement to Golf Digest last week: “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.”
[IMAGE: Nic Antaya]