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The last time Nick Watney was on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, there were far more questions than answers.
In June, Watney became the first PGA Tour player to test positive for COVID-19 following the circuit’s restart and while the world’s understanding of the coronavirus has evolved dramatically the last 10 months, the 39-year-old’s mind inevitably drifted back to those uncertain days when he arrived to play this week’s RBC Heritage.
“Coming back to the island has brought back some memories, uncertain times at that point. Just in my head, mostly. It didn’t seem like there was a ton of data,” Watney told GolfChannel.com.
The 2020 Heritage was the second event on the Tour’s reimagined schedule and following a successful testing week at the Charles Schwab Challenge there was a very real sense of relief at Harbour Town Golf Links. Following months of uncertainty, maybe the Tour could play through a pandemic.
Ian Poulter and Mark Hubbard took the early lead with 7-under 64s while Watney struggled to a 74 that left him tied for 134th out of 151 players. The Tour’s official announcement that Watney had tested positive said he’d “indicated he had symptoms consistent with the illness.” But Watney didn’t have any real symptoms associated with COVID-19.
“I debated even getting tested because I felt fine. The data on my Whoop [fitness strap] said my respiratory rate was high and that was unique to COVID,” he said. “I didn’t have any outward symptoms.”
Although the Tour’s COVID-19 protocols have evolved since those first few events, the Tour’s doctor told Watney he could go warm up for the second round while they waited for his test results. He spent time with his caddie, Tony Navarro, hit balls on the Harbour Town range, which is among the smallest on Tour, and even had a brief conversation with Rory McIlroy on the practice putting green.
Watney’s positive test was a shock. He’d followed all of the protocols, worn his mask when he wasn’t playing and practicing and adhered to the circuit’s safer-at-home rules.
All total, Watney spent 12 days in quarantine in a small condo tucked on the back side of Hilton Head Island. He was alone with his thoughts and, like everyone else, so many questions.
“I was trying to follow all of the protocols and do the right thing. It was confusing and scary at the same time. All those things have come up again,” Watney said of his 12 days in isolation.
Watney’s case was mild and he also had the support of the Tour, which provided him with a stipend for his time in quarantine. The bigger concern at the time was how his positive test might impact others. Would Navarro need to be quarantined? Who would be pulled into the contact tracing that followed the first positive test? And, most concerning, what if he passed the virus along to someone?
Watney texted McIlroy Friday afternoon to apologize for putting him at risk, and Luke List and Vaughn Taylor, who were paired with Watney for Round 1, and their caddies were retested for COVID-19.
“I was super worried about [infecting others],” Watney said. “The driving range is small and I was around this guy or that guy. It’s terrible to think about the distanced interactions you did have. It was a relief no one was infected by me.”
For 12 days Watney was left alone with his own thoughts and he spent a good deal of time researching the coronavirus and trying to learn as much as he could. He learned that “viral waste” can continue to be detected even though the virus is dead.
This week, a few players have asked Watney about last year’s Heritage and being back on the island has stirred a lot memories from his time in the small condo.
“I haven’t been by there yet. I was thinking about driving past it to see if they bulldozed it or not,” he laughed. “It was like Groundhog Day. Wake up, pace around, talk on the phone.”
Being back at the Heritage has also given Watney a unique perspective on how far the world has come in 10 months. He’s received the first of his two vaccinations and is confident the Tour is inching closer to normal.
“With this much data and vaccines, my comfort level is slightly higher. The vaccines are easing people’s minds,” he said. “It seems like the world is heading in the right direction.”
Compared to the last time Watney was on Hilton Head Island there are far more answers and some much-needed clarity.