SAN FRANCISCO — Everyone has choices.
In the COVID-19 age we live in, high-level athletes have been faced with choices they never dreamt they would encounter.
Instead of choosing between flying private or first class, for example, now they’re choosing whether to play on or opt out.
Yes, “opt out’’ is among the new phrases that have been unfortunately added to the 2020 lexicon.
Top players from the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL have made the choice to “opt out’’ of the 2020 season as a way to be as cautious as possible with the coronavirus, not to contract it themselves or — worse yet — bring it home to their families.
Before this week’s PGA Championship began, some 15 players withdrew from the field at Harding Park, most of whom cited COVID-19 concerns as the reason.
Among the most prominent names were former PGA Championship winner Padraig Harrington, Englishman Lee Westwood and former British Open champion Francesco Molinari. Thomas Pieters and Eddie Pepperell also chose not to play despite being qualified for the field.
The common denominator to those five names: They’re all based in Europe.
Tommy Fleetwood, a native of England, chose to play instead of opting out, and that’s a good thing considering he’ll enter the weekend with a great chance to win his first career major championship.
Fleetwood, who shot a tournament-low 64 in Friday’s second round, finished his day two shots out of the lead held by the surprising Haotong Li.
Golfers opting out has become a hot-button topic in the past two months since the PGA Tour restart of its schedule back in June. Harrington and Molinari, for example, haven’t competed at all since the pandemic paused all sports in March.
Harrington and Westwood have implied that they didn’t feel safe coming to the U.S. because there are so many virus hot spots popping up all over the place and that places like Ireland and England, their respective homes, have done a better job of flattening the curve.
It’s not good business to criticize any athletes for opting out in an effort to keep themselves and their families safe.
Fleetwood said after his stellar round on Friday that he spent a lot of time weighing what was best to do.
“I think you assess the situation week in, week out at the moment and see how everybody feels, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to what anybody does,’’ Fleetwood said Friday. “I knew whenever I did come over to the States there was a two-week quarantine and I knew I was going to spend a long stretch. You looked at the schedule and … starting last week, there was a WGC, there’s a major this week, then you’re working your way into the [FedExCup] playoffs and then there’s a U.S. Open, so there’s a long stint of big events.’’
Paul Casey, an Englishman who makes his home in Arizona, understands the plight of his fellow Europeans who opted not to make the trip this week.
“I don’t know what I would have done,’’ Casey conceded after shooting 67 Friday to get to 5-under for the tournament. “I have a young family, as most of those guys you’ve mentioned do [Westwood, Harrington et al]. But you know, the Tour has basically given us a free pass this year on exemptions. So, you choose a guy even like Francesco Molinari, who we haven’t seen yet back on Tour, his position, his eligibility will not change for next season. So, there is no pressure [to play].’’
Fleetwood came to the U.S. from England last month and he did it in style, quarantining with his family for two weeks in the Hamptons. While there, he played some of the golf gems, including Shinnecock Hills, where he nearly won the 2018 U.S. Open with a final-round 63, as well as National Golf Links and Friar’s Head.
Fleetwood won the unofficial award for best quarantine. Now perhaps he can win his first major.
“I’m the same person,’’ Fleetwood said when asked to compare himself now to 2018. “I feel the same, I guess, with a few more majors under my belt of experience. Hopefully, they stand me in good stead over the weekend. Every time these weeks come about you just hope … you prepare for it to be your week. Today was a great day. Got a weekend of golf left. We’ll see.’’