JOHANNESBURG -- A batch of British and Irish golfers withdrew from the Joburg Open before Friday's second round after the U.K. government announced it was banning flights from South Africa to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant.
The inaugural season of the DP World Tour started Thursday but more than a dozen players pulled out of the tournament because of the new restrictions, tour spokesperson Steve Todd confirmed on Friday.
The tour on Friday said the Joburg Open will be reduced to 54 holes "to help non-South African resident players, caddies and tournament support staff return to their home countries."
It also announced the upcoming Alfred Dunhill Links Championship has been canceled, while the South African Open has been downgraded to a local event.
The U.K. announced it was suspending flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and making travelers from these countries self-isolate for 10 days effective from 12 p.m. GMT Friday. From Sunday morning, travelers would have to go into hotel quarantine.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant "may be more transmissible" than the delta strain, and "the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective" against it.
Also, the European Union said Friday that it plans to stop air travel from southern Africa because of the variant as the 27-nation bloc is battling a massive spike in cases.
Angel Hidalgo of Spain shot 6-under 65 on Thursday to lead the first round before play was suspended because of bad weather. It marked the start of a new era following the rebranding of the European Tour to a title that better reflects its global nature.
Irish golfer Paul Dunne told RTE Radio he was unaware of the situation when he finished out his delayed first round Friday morning. He has withdrawn and planned to take a flight to Dubai on Friday.
"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," Dunne told the radio show.
"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."
Dunne said there were flights available but routing through Ethiopia, where fighting in the country's yearlong war draws closer to the capital, Addis Ababa.
"Bit of a minefield at the minute," he said.
Not every British player left. Ashley Chesters shot 2-under 69 on Friday to complete his second round on 7 under overall.
Two rugby teams from Wales also plan to return home early from their South Africa trip. Cardiff and the Scarlets were set to play in the United Rugby Championship this weekend.
"Following the news of a new Covid variant in South Africa, Scarlets would like to assure families and friends that we are making every effort to get our touring party back home to the UK as soon as possible," Scarlets said in a statement.
In a tweet early Friday, Cardiff said "we are now looking to repatriate our staff ASAP."
Irish province Munster and Italian club Zebre Parma are also in South Africa.
Munster on Friday tweeted: "We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more."