Jon Rahm’s PGA withdrawal shows world Covid must come before sport | Ewan Murray
It was one of the more remarkable episodes in a PGA Tour season. Jon Rahm, having stepped from the 18th green on completion of his third round at Muirfield Village, put head in hands after being spoken to by tournament officials. His caddie batted aside a camera crew as they pursued what was evidently a breaking story. The simple inference was that Rahm had been told that someone close to him was seriously ill; or worse.
As it transpired, Rahm had tested positive for Covid‑19. It had been a complex process, instigated by him being identified as a contact of someone who had the virus at the start of Memorial Tournament week. His involvement was now over.
That the Spaniard held a six-shot lead by the end of the third round added the key layer of drama. If one searched hard, very hard, one could just about discover concern for the health of Rahm, his young family or the individual to whom he had earlier been in proximity.
Bookmakers, not wasting a good crisis and despite the fluctuations within professional golf, paid out on a Rahm victory and received the public relations plaudits that followed.
“How we respond to a setback defines us as people,” said Rahm, apparently not one for understatement. He has missed out on the chance of a 13th professional victory, some FedEx Cup points and a boost to PGA Tour earnings of $26m on account of a virus which, at the last count, was linked to the deaths of almost four million people: “setbacks” are relative.
As the golf world looked to grasp Rahm’s dramatic Ohio episode, there were some extraordinary takes. “Jon Rahm should play [on] Sunday,” said Jimmy Walker, the 2016 US PGA champion. “By himself if need be. Period. I can’t get behind this decision.”
Walker added that people should “yell” at the government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whom he cited as somehow to blame. The reputational damage to the PGA Tour had Rahm, positive for Covid-19 and not deemed fully vaccinated as per the rules he was having to follow, completed this humdrum event would, rightly, have been epic.
It should be noted that golf, including the PGA Tour, has been – if the term itself is not in poor taste – a success story in this pandemic-dominated world. Rahm’s situation is as unusual as it is unfortunate but it shows a commitment to protocols which so many, including Walker, believe should be consigned to history. Others want a normality level within professional sport that is simply not possible and may not be for some time yet. Rahm’s withdrawal reinforced that much.
Little over a month remains before the Open Championship takes place at Royal St George’s, with the R&A as good as admitting it has no clarity about the form of golf’s oldest major. Attendance levels, biosecure bubbles and access for media are all caught in the midst of dialogue between R&A officials and the government.
There is background stamping of feet over that but it is the world we live in, regardless of understandable appetite for sport to lead the charge towards freedom. A rump of the population with no interest whatsoever in the Memorial, the Open or the European Championship finals are entitled to roll their eyes at even the perception of special treatment as variants surge.
Tuesday will mark D-Day in Brazil regarding whether or not the country’s football team will commit to playing in the hastily relocated Copa América. With Brazil’s Covid synopsis still grim, even a nation so obsessed with football is palpably uncomfortable with the staging of a tournament which has already been reduced to 10 teams. Brazil registered 83,000 new coronavirus cases and 1,300 deaths on Thursday alone.
The Brazil captain, Casemiro, has suggested his squad is united against hosting the competition, previously scheduled to take place in Argentina and Colombia. Brazilian players will not have such feelings in isolation; Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez must all talk. There is inevitable conflicting background pressure, though, from the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, as well as clubs who must be uneasy with their star turns entering such a troubled domain.
Though amplified, such football-related discussion is not confined to South America. The Scottish Football Association insisted it was being ultra-cautious when leaving six players out of the recent friendly against the Netherlands. Another Scotland squad member, John Fleck, remains in isolation in Spain after testing positive for coronavirus.
Just weeks before what should be one of the finest experiences of his career Fleck, consigned to a hotel room, has become an afterthought. Not so Luis Enrique’s Spain squad, whose Euros preparations have been thrown into chaos by Sergio Busquets’s positive test. If there is much more of this, it is hardly a stretch to suggest the validity of the contest will be called into question. This marks a blunt truth so many appear unwilling to consider. By the time Euro 2020 gets under way, a fraught – and contrasting – picture across the continent will render it no ordinary finals tournament.
There are reports that those attending matches at Hampden Park – a stadium in one of the Glasgow postcodes that sparked government fear and alarm late last month – must turn up hours early to an environment where they cannot buy a burger or a coffee. Scotland’s lengthy absence from tournament football means most will get on with it despite everything pointing towards a joyless day out.
Rahm, meanwhile, must plot a US Open assault – it starts on 17 June – from restricted territory. If that is as bad as it gets, everyone involved should actually be grateful.