News & Opinion

Jon Rahm's COVID-19 caper at Memorial could have been avoided

Jon Rahm at 2021 Zurich Classic
Jon Rahm squanders a near-certain victory at the Memorial Tournament.

Rahm, like many PGA Tour players, had not been fully vaccinated, leading to stunning turn of events and loss of near-certain victory

DUBLIN, Ohio – The virus is still with us.

That was a painful lesson learned by Jon Rahm on Saturday after he fashioned perhaps the best round of his career, an 8-under 64 at the Memorial Tournament.

Just after missing a putt that would have been his 10th birdie of the round, Rahm walked off the 18th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club and was met by the PGA Tour’s medical adviser, Dr. Tom Hospel, and another unidentified individual. They relayed the stunning news that Rahm, who held an apparent six-stroke lead after 54 holes, had tested positive – first at 4:20 p.m. EDT and then in a confirmation test at 6:03 p.m. – for the coronavirus, or COVID-19. He was forced to withdraw, relinquishing a six-stroke lead and near-certain victory.

Those tests were part of the PGA Tour’s contact-tracing protocol after a player has come into contact with a COVID-positive individual.

In Rahm’s case, the identity of that individual or the person’s relationship to the golfer was not disclosed. Rahm had been notified by the Tour that he would need to be tested for the virus every day while onsite.

According to Tour protocols, a player who has been in direct contact with a COVID-positive individual must be tested daily unless he has been fully vaccinated.  

It’s possible that Rahm had received one or two shots but not more than two weeks before Memorial week, to be considered fully vaccinated. The result is that he is not fully vaccinated by the standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adopted by the PGA Tour.

All of which comes to the heart of the matter: If Rahm had been fully vaccinated, he would not have been subject to testing. In Sunday’s final round, Rahm would have a coronation of sorts strolling around Muirfield Village in what very likely would have been a successful title defense. He could have joined Tiger Woods as the only player to repeat at the Memorial.

Rahm also would have earned $1.67 million and 550 FedEx Cup points as the winner and, at No. 3 in the world, drawn considerably closer to No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson.

Instead, Americans Collin Morikawa and Patrick Cantlay were preparing to tee off Sunday afternoon tied for the lead at 12 under. (For scores, click here.)

A six-shot lead can be overcome, but the last time on the Tour was 3½ years ago, at the 2017 HSBC Champions, when Dustin Johnson shot a final-round 77 and lost by two shots to Justin Rose.

That’s what Rahm lost by not being fully vaccinated. Now, he must self-isolate for 10 days, until early Tuesday, June 15, of U.S. Open week at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Rahm won the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the first of his five PGA Tour titles.

According to the PGA Tour, more than 50 percent of players have been fully vaccinated. That number is at least consistent with the 52 percent of the U.S. population who have been fully vaccinated as of late last week.

Rahm was a bit philosophical in a tweet: “This is one of those things that happens in life, when how we respond to a setback defined us as a people.”

Rahm, 26, of Spain, and his wife, Kelley, announced the birth of their first child, a son, in early April.

Tournament host Jack Nicklaus said Sunday that he spoke with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who Nicklaus said had talked with Rahm twice on Saturday after the Tour withdrew him from the Memorial.

Though Nicklaus expressed sympathy for Rahm, he also stood up for the Tour’s response which many on social media have questioned, wondering why Rahm had to be withdrawn.

“He understands we have rules,” Nicklaus said. “Unfortunately, rules are something you may not like, but they are the rules that we have right now, and you’ve got to abide by them.”

Coincidentally, 41 vaccinations have been administered onsite this week, though it's unknown whether any of those recipients were players.

“We would like to see the number higher, but full vaccination is two full weeks past the completion of a cycle,” PGA Tour executive Andy Levinson said. “So, let's look at the Moderna vaccine, for example. That's a six-week process. And you're looking at a population of a lot of young people who may not have even necessarily been eligible in their hometowns until mid-April. So, we're really starting to see that percentage of people uploading their full vaccination record. That's really starting to increase significantly over the last two weeks, and I expect it to continue.” 

This unfortunate situation was totally avoidable. Though Rahm is paying a terrible price, it was a cost that he assumed when he decided either not to get vaccinated or not get vaccinated sooner so that he would be fully vaccinated.

There are more than 597,000 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19, according to government health statistics, and each one certainly would have liked to have had the choice to be vaccinated. Rahm paid a price for his error, though nothing on the level of any of those 597,000 victims.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.