Imagine you’re a professional golfer playing in a PGA Tour event. All those hours spent grinding it out during the week trying to make sure your game is right headed to Thursday morning. You’re feeling good. You start playing well. Then you start to build a lead. You distance yourself from the competition. Then your worst nightmare comes to life. You are forced to withdraw from the tournament with no recourse. Sounds rather disheartening, right? Well, Jon Rahm just lived it this past weekend in central Ohio.
Carving Up Muirfield Village
Let’s set the scene here. Every year since 1976, Jack Nicklaus hosts his Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. Officially an invitational tournament, a reduced field (120 players versus 156 at most other PGA tournaments) vies for the title. In 2020, Jon Rahm hoisted the trophy which vaulted him to the number one spot in the World Golf Rankings. As such, he was obviously invited back to defend his title. Rahm came into the tournament clearly ready for the challenge shooting a 3-under 69 on Thursday. This put him within a few strokes of the top of the leaderboard. Friday’s round was hampered a bit by rain, but he ultimately bested himself from the prior round by four strokes, shooting a 7-under 65 – including a hole-in-one on the Par 3 16th hole. This put him in prime position at a combined 10-under heading into the weekend.
Lest you think he was done or he peaked in the second round, rest assured Rahm was just getting started. Not satisfied by the prior round’s results, he went out and bested himself yet again. In Saturday’s third round, Rahm shot a blazing 8-under 64 and, at the time he walked off the green at the 18th hole, he was firmly in the lead by six strokes. Anything can happen on any given day in a golf tournament, but a six-stroke lead would’ve been difficult for his opponents to overcome and the $1.7 million payday was well within his grasp. However, it was then that he was dealt arguably the biggest mid-tournament blow we’ve seen in some time. As he walked off with his caddy, a PGA Tour medical advisor approached Rahm and informed him of his positive COVID-19 test result.
“What’s Going On Here?”
It was surreal. Jon Rahm had just finished his day – one in which he had nine birdies, six of which came on the back nine – and was headed to sign his scorecard. Clearly, no one knew what was happening because even Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo were flummoxed in the booth. They were left wondering just like the viewer at home why a player sitting comfortably in the lead should be acting so distraught. That he was tested was not an issue. We have all come to expect this during these COVID times no matter our occupation. He had apparently been informed at the beginning of the week that he came in close contact with another COVID-positive individual, so he was subject to contact tracing. However, he was still allowed to play. Subject to daily testing and strict access policies, Rahm chose to do so.
Why we CBS didn't get a heads up, or why wasn't he told to put a mask on and come inside we've got something to tell you?! It would've been all a completely different reaction/situation! https://t.co/LwsDIKwpdY— Sir Nick Faldo (@NickFaldo006) June 5, 2021
After the rain-delayed second round, he was tested. This test yielded a positive result mid-third round, so his original sample was retested to be sure. This sample was also found to be positive right about when he completed play. So tournament and Tour officials chose to tell him right away so as to prevent any further unnecessary close contact. Masked up, he rode off with his caddie on an official’s cart and his tournament was done.
Was This Necessary?
After hearing this, the first question that comes to mind is why they did this for all to see. The second is whether his withdrawal was really necessary. For the first one, I get it. You want to relay information in real-time and prevent any further exposure to tournament officials, volunteers, fans, players, etc. Though crushing at the moment, Rahm took the high road in his response, as one would expect. So much so that his colleagues and Jack Nicklaus himself took notice.
Thoughts after today’s round pic.twitter.com/gWkBAWE42F— Jon Rahm Rodriguez (@JonRahmpga) June 6, 2021
As for that second question, was his withdrawal really necessary? At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I believe that Rahm should’ve been allowed to complete the tournament. After all, in terms of competition, the sport is conducted entirely outside. While I understand proximity on the tee boxes to his playing partner and caddies, as well as that of fans throughout the course of a round, special provisions could have been put into place to protect all involved as much as possible. Rahm and his caddy could even have elected to wear a mask in those exact scenarios and any others that might have arisen, such as signing scorecards, using locker rooms, or potentially hoisting the trophy upon winning the tournament.
One of Those Things
Having said all that, I understand the Tour’s need to put everyone’s safety first and addressing things the way they did. These are uncertain times and all organizations such as the PGA Tour can do is put in safeguards to ensure what they believe to be the best practices for all involved. Although we’ve made progress from a year ago, COVID-19 is not yet a thing of the past. And though we’ve seen COVID spread throughout sports of all types at all levels, every day presents an opportunity for a new wrinkle and a new situation not yet broached. So, if you had “Leader of a golf tournament withdrawing due to COVID six strokes ahead of their closest competition” on your scorecard at home, go buy a lottery ticket. Better yet, buy about $1.7 million worth so you can at least experience the payday that Jon Rahm missed out on.
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