Golfers from the United Kingdom withdrew from the Joburg Open on its first day in an attempt to get home safely after the government announced it was banning flights from South Africa because of the new COVID-19 variant.
The inaugural season of the DP World Tour began Thursday with the Joburg Open in Johannesburg, South Africa. More than a dozen golfers pulled out of the event on Thursday and early Friday when they heard the U.K. was readying to suspend flights from six southern African countries, the Associated Press reported.
Rugby matches scheduled in South Africa have been called off and a cricket tour's swing through the country has been canceled.
The scramble is reminiscent of March 2020 when the sports world shut down and athletes were stranded across the world attempting to get home.
What is the new COVID-19 variant?
Scientists in South Africa identified a new variant of the coronavirus, named B.1.1.529, that they believe is behind a sharp rise in cases in the country's most popular area. It's worrying because of the mutations on the spike protein that suggests it can spread even quicker than recent variations and current vaccines might not be as effective, scientists and the U.K. health secretary said.
The U.K. took immediate action and announced it was suspending flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Travelers from those countries who make it onto flights before Sunday have to self-isolate for 10 days effective mid-day Friday. The European Union also said Friday it will stop air travel from the area while it battles its own spike in cases.
Golfers scramble to fly home
Joburg Open spokesman Steve Todd told the AP that more than a dozen players pulled out of the event as of Friday morning.
Some golfers were unaware of the news when they finished their first rounds on Friday after a weather delay forced them from Thursday's schedule.
Irish golfer Paul Dunne was unaware until he checked his messages after the round. He told RTE Radio:
“I’d three holes to finish in my first round, and when I came in I turned my phone on and I had messages from everyone asking me if I was going to go to the airport or stay and play. That’s when I started to look into it."
“I think a few people are on the course without kind of a real idea of what’s going on,” he added, “but some people are finding it hard. I’ve heard people can’t get a flight until Sunday evening. The only flights available are through Ethiopia and I think with the stuff in Ethiopia [ongoing conflict] nobody fancies traveling through there either. Bit of a minefield at the minute."
Dunne withdrew and is planning to take a flight to Dubai on Friday, per RTE Radio. He said tournament leaders have indicated withdrawing players won't face sanctions. Some U.K. golfers have stayed to compete.
South African events begin to shut down
The United Rugby Championship had matches scheduled in South African over the next two weekends. They have been postponed and will be scheduled later in the season, the organization said in a statement.
"The safety and well-being of our participating clubs' players, coaches and support staff and match officials is the foremost priority," the statement reads, "and the URC is currently working with the four visiting clubs – Cardiff Rugby, Munster Rugby, Scarlets and Zebre Parma – to facilitate their return as soon as possible."
The Netherlands men's cricket team was in the country for an ongoing one-day international (ODI) series with South Africa. The competition was called off midway through the first of three ODIs at Centurion on Friday, the AP reported.
But the organizations have not made an official declaration. Per ESPN CricInfo, the Netherlands team is having trouble finding a flight out over the weekend.
"Both boards can confirm that following updated information, it is highly unlikely that the visiting team will be able to fly out of South Africa over the weekend," an official statement said. "The KNCB is reviewing all of its options, while prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of its players.
"A decision on the continuation of the series will follow in the next 24 to 48 hours, while all flight options are being considered."