News & Opinion

PGA Tour mishandles message with Jon Rahm at Memorial

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan at 2020 Players
Commissioner Jay Monahan should review how his PGA Tour officials handled the Jon Rahm incident.

54-hole leader learns of positive COVID-19 test in most insensitive of ways: in front of colleagues, spectators and national TV audience

DUBLIN, Ohio – The PGA Tour has been dealing with the COVID-19 virus effectively for more than a year.

The Tour lost three months of tournaments in 2020 to the pandemic and then filled the dates that it needed to fill, occasionally with last-minute sponsors.

The response has been such a success that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan could point to the past 15 or so months as the biggest accomplishment of his tenure. No other major professional sport was able to pick up the pieces so adroitly as did the Tour, essentially without missing a beat.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the PGA Tour needs to recognize its errors Saturday at the Memorial Tournament and fix them.

The first clear issue was the process of notifying a player of a positive COVID-19 test.

When Jon Rahm walked off the 18th green Saturday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, he was allowed to enjoy his 8-under 64 and six-shot lead for about 30 seconds. Dr. Thomas Hospel, the Tour’s medical director, approached Rahm with the news that he tested positive for COVID-19 from a sample that he provided earlier in the day.

The entire exchange was shown on the CBS telecast, including Rahm squatting in pain, but no explanation was given on-air. Clearly, CBS had no clue about what was happening, and most of the PGA Tour staff onsite also was unaware of what was taking place. Even Rahm’s fellow competitors were unsure that the tournament leader was being withdrawn by the Tour for the positive test.

“I was walking off 18,” said Scottie Scheffler, who was paired with Rahm and Patrick Cantlay in the final threesome of the day. “I wasn't really thinking about anything other than just going to sign my card, just get off the green. I saw Hospel was there, and I didn't think twice about it, and we get into scoring and he's standing in there and Jon looked very frustrated, which I thought was weird, so I kind of smiled at him thinking, … Why, what happened? I was already inside. I didn't see any activity on the green, so I kind of smiled at him just to see and, I mean, he just goes, ‘Good luck tomorrow,’ and I'm, like, ‘Thanks, man. You play good, too.’ I was just really confused. He's, like, ‘No, man. I just tested positive.’ My heart just sank. It's terrible that that happened. I think it's terrible they told him in front of the cameras.” 

It’s easy to joke about a doctor’s bedside manner, but that exchange – mainly where it took place – sent the wrong message. It should have been done somewhere else and not in front of spectators and the TV audience.

The Tour really didn’t have a good answer as to why the notification occurred when and where it did.

“So, he was informed by our medical adviser,” PGA Tour executive Andy Levinson said in a conference call later Saturday night. “It's an unfortunate situation and difficult to find an ideal opportunity to notify him, but our medical adviser notified him before he went into scoring, and that was how it was conducted.”

There is no ideal situation to tell a player with a six-shot lead after 54 holes that he is being withdrawn from the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test. However, there are some awful ways of doing it, and Hospel’s approach to Rahm was one of them.

The Tour needs to devise a better way to proceed in the future, and the dignity of the player should be foremost.

The other issue coming from Rahm’s withdrawal is the equitable distribution of the stipend that all players receive with a positive test.

According to guidance provided last year, a $75,000 stipend will be given to all players who test positive and follow PGA Tour protocols, even if the positive test was not onsite at a Tour event.

Rahm’s positive test was extraordinary because it was determined while he was on the course.

Of course, it took on heightened importance because he was leading the tournament by six shots through 54 holes.

Rahm’s positive test cost him $1.67 million, 550 FedEx Cup points and a potential move up the world rankings from No. 3 to No. 2.

I don’t think $75,000 really is just or fair compensation, but what is?

That’s not an easy question. It could be a percentage of what Rahm would have won if more than $75,000 – perhaps 10 percent or 20 percent, which in this case would be $167,000 or $334,000.

While not a total remuneration, that formula would be a more equitable approach for a player who deserves to get something other than a token payment when he teed it up and played better than anyone else in the field for 54 holes.

“I told Jay [Monahan, the commissioner] I wish there was some way to give Jon three-quarters of a trophy,” Jack Nicklaus said of a conversation he had with Monahan on Sunday morning.

I understand Nicklaus’ point, but it’s easier to write a check than to cut a trophy by three-quarters.
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