DUBLIN, Ohio – It would have been easy – honest even – to peruse the crowd that crushed in around Muirfield Village’s 18th green late Saturday and think that we’ve come out the other side of a long, dark nightmare. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the only person wearing a mask in the near-capacity crowd was Dr. Tom Hospel, the PGA Tour’s medical advisor, and he was only there to tell Jon Rahm that Rahm had tested positive for COVID-19.
The stunning scene and Rahm’s withdrawal from the Memorial was as polarizing as it was enlightening. The Spaniard, who was cruising with a six-stroke lead and a record-tying 54-hole total, became the first Tour player to suffer the competitive consequences of the coronavirus.
In Tour HQ circles, this was a worst-case scenario.
Rahm’s fate was also a vivid and, some might say, timely reminder that although the Tour and U.S. continue to move in the right direction when it comes to the pandemic, there is still road ahead that must be navigated.
It’s not an exaggeration that the Tour navigated the pandemic waters better than any other sports league, and next Friday will mark the circuit's one-year anniversary of its return to competition at Colonial.
Twelve months ago, the uncertainty was smothering. Would testing hold up? Would there be an outbreak? Could the Tour sustain a schedule that covers multiple states and vastly different rules and regulations?
This wasn’t the NBA. This wasn’t a bubble. And the possibility of a player, like Rahm, testing positive while leading was very real.
“We talked about it early with [Justin Thomas] being on the PAC and Jordan [Spieth] being on the board, there was a lot of stuff that I heard that they talked about behind closed doors, what happens if someone tested on, having to test positive on Saturday that was leading?” Rickie Fowler said. “It's a very small chance, and to think that we have been at it for basically a year now and this is the first time it's happened, pretty impressive on that part. It's a bummer that it's happened now.”
This always felt inevitable, but as the months wore on optimism – be it manufactured or otherwise – grew. Branden Grace was tied for second place after two rounds at last year’s Barracuda Championship when he tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw, but otherwise the competition largely remained above the pandemic.
That was until Saturday and the surreal scene with Rahm.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything that affected an individual that much. Particularly in that position in the tournament. That was a tough thing to swallow for everybody,” said tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who has seen pretty much everything there is to see in his six decades in the game.
If social media is any guide, opinion on Rahm’s forced WD are widely split. Although the Tour wouldn’t comment on whether he is fully vaccinated, which is defined by a player who is two weeks removed from a completed dose, the circuit’s policy states that a player would be exempt from contact tracing if they were vaccinated and asymptomatic, which Rahm was. It’s also worth noting that the fully vaccinated rate on Tour is “north of 50 percent,” which isn’t terrible and also around the national average for adults.
There were also those who struggled to understand why Rahm, after a week of semi-isolation because of contact tracing that limited his access to many indoor areas at Muirfield Village, wouldn’t be allowed to play solo on Sunday.
“We all would have loved for him to be able to play, maybe as a one-some behind everyone and play it out, but that would be a double standard to people who have had to withdraw in the past,” Kevin Streelman said. “We can’t do that either. We’re just abiding by the letter of the law and that’s unfortunate but that’s what we have to do for a few more weeks or months.”
It’s also out of the Tour’s hands. According to CDC protocols, anyone who tests positive faces 10 days of isolation unless they are asymptomatic and produce two negative tests that are 24 hours apart. For Rahm, there was no time for that.
But this isn’t a CDC problem or a Tour problem. This is a perception problem. Following a long year of masks and social distancing and better-at-home practices, it’s easy to become complacent. It’s easy to enjoy the freedoms of a post-pandemic world and forget everything we’ve learned. Everything we’ve endured.
“I think it’s mostly past, mostly. But we’re going to have COVID for a while,” Nicklaus said.
And we’re going to have COVID-19 testing, and contact tracing, and awkward moments like Saturday’s for the foreseeable future.
As much as we’d all like to take a victory lap on the eve of the Tour’s one-year anniversary of its Return to Golf, Rahm’s plight was an unfortunate reminder of how far we still have.