Vaccinated only at a rate ‘north of 50 percent,’ players need to roll up their sleeves and take one for the team, John Hawkins writes
Looking back on one of the year’s biggest golf stories a few days later, Jon Rahm’s forced withdrawal from the Memorial last Saturday night doesn’t seem nearly as shocking. What initially made it such a jaw-dropper was Rahm’s position on the leaderboard (first) and the size of his lead (six shots). If the strapping Spaniard had finished the third round tied for 44th, his violation of the PGA Tour’s COVID-19 protocol wouldn’t rank right behind Tiger Woods’ car accident and Phil Mickelson’s PGA Championship triumph as the most impactful news items of 2021.
Not long after Rahm was informed of a second positive test, Tour vice president Andy Levinson used the term “north of 50 percent” when referring to how many players have been vaccinated, adding, “That’s really starting to increase significantly over the last two weeks, and I expect it to continue.” All high-ranking company men know how to tap dance. Levinson’s cryptic declaration, despite the sunny-side spin, revealed an underlying current of apathy in terms of how a lot of Tour pros continue to view the pandemic.
North of 50 percent? Are we to believe that represents a wholesale commitment? Given how a medical repellent for the virus has been available to most players for at least a couple of months, Levinson’s insinuation that close to half still haven’t undergone such a simple procedure has become the most alarming aspect of this entire scenario.
It might be a reach to think that the bomb dropped on Rahm was inevitable, but knowing what we know now, it’s not a surprise, either. North of 50 percent is still a thousand miles south of Santa’s house. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Tour’s competitive restart. Although it took almost 12 months before the game sustained a highly visible, tournament-altering casualty, the fate dealt to Rahm underscores the lurking dangers in a profession where the risk of not getting vaccinated is immeasurably greater than the reward of choosing not to.
Rahm paid an exceptionally high price for his indifference, but if anyone should have known better, it’s him. He became a father just two months ago. He hails from a country that was ravaged by COVID-19 in the early stages of the worldwide outbreak. And he’s one of the best golfers on earth, a guy with a lot more to lose than someone who struggles just to make cuts. We’re smack-dab in the middle of the major-championship season. For a guy who has a realistic chance of winning every time he shows up, ignoring the value of a needle in the arm amounts to reckless behavior. Short-term career sabotage.
When Arizona, Rahm’s adopted home state, opened vaccine eligibility to all adults on March 24, the big boy should have been first in line. “It’s a business decision in many ways,” Jack Nicklaus told The Columbus Dispatch. “There’s no hassle to it after you get it.”
Rahm has been careful not to divulge whether he’d begun the vaccination process or just hadn’t gotten around to starting it. Or, for that matter, whether he viewed the exercise as a waste of time masquerading as an overblown social issue. Being the ultra-emotional player he is, however, it stands to reason that if Rahm received a full dose of the vaccine and still contracted the virus, he would make sure everyone knew it.
Politically-oriented beliefs, a sense of imperviousness to the pandemic, an unwillingness to go through the non-hassle Nicklaus mentioned or just a deeply rooted fear of needles …. There is no shortage of reasons for conscientious objectors not to join the 140 million or so fully inoculated Americans – about 42.3 percent of the U.S. population. Of course, that’s probably a few weeks south of 50, but nonetheless a remarkable achievement in a country where finger-pointing and grudge-holding have joined forces to serve as the national pastime.
Until COVID-19 took Rahm as a noteworthy prisoner, the same could be said of the Tour itself. Camp Ponte Vedra did a fine job of steering the ship through rough waters, certainly better than the NFL or Major League Baseball, but Rahm’s infection leaves one to wonder whether it was aggressive enough in stressing the importance of embracing the vaccine. Levinson made a point of saying that just four players have been forced to withdraw from events once they’d begun, but when one of the four all but forfeits a $1.674 million winner’s check and the biggest victory of a very promising career – and compromises his preparation for next week’s U.S. Open – the entire operation walks away with a black eye.
As one longtime insider mused, it’s funny how the Tour can threaten to expel anyone within its membership for jumping to the still-dormant Premier Golf League, yet come to terms with the idea that at least one-third of that same constituency remains prone to the coronavirus. Is it within commissioner Jay Monahan’s practical and legal boundaries to impose sanctions on those who remain unvaccinated?
Last weekend tells us such action shouldn’t be necessary. If nothing else, Rahm’s negligence should persuade all of his fellow competitors to take a couple of shots for the team. To consider the vaccine an obligation to the game that has made so many of them wealthy and tried to keep them healthy, not an expression of personal freedom. To do their part in helping pro golf navigate the final stages of this rugged journey. To get them all a whole lot closer to Santa’s house.
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