U.S. Open favorite Jon Rahm happy to be back at Torrey Pines — for many reasons
Jon Rahm had a six-stroke lead after the third round at the Memorial Tournament on June 5 when, walking off the 18th green, he was informed he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would have to withdraw. It likely cost him his sixth PGA Tour win and $1.67 million in prize money.
That was the least of his problems.
His parents were flying in Monday night from Spain to his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., marking the first time he would see them in more than a year and the first time they would see his 2-month-old son. And he was stuck in Columbus, Ohio, looking at a 10-day quarantine. His positive test precluded hopping on a Southwest Airlines flight or a private jet. Driving? Columbus to Scottsdale is 1,865 miles.
The solution: an air ambulance.
“That’s how we got it done,” Rahm said. “Right next to one of those tables that carry people that are actually — you know, kind of sketchy, but I got home.”
Rahm was speaking Tuesday morning at Torrey Pines Golf Course, site of the 121st U.S. Open, a tournament he is favored to win. He had already practiced on the front nine Monday, was getting ready to play the back nine and spoke with the relief of a man who realized things could have been much worse.
“Just getting ready for the worst,” he said of his emotions a week earlier.
It never happened. He was asymptomatic. None of his family or close associates seem to have contracted the virus from him. And instead of remaining in isolation until 7 a.m. Tuesday and feeling “a little bit underprepared,” he was cleared Saturday morning after consecutive negative tests 24 hours apart.
“Vamos,” he tweeted. Let’s go.
Kikuyu grass, which almost no other major championship courses have, will be present in all its gnarled glory at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Which isn’t good news for the rest of the 156-player field at Torrey Pines South.
No one might like the layout more, or play it better, or have a deeper spiritual connection to the place, than Rahm. He recorded his first PGA Tour victory here at the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017 and finished fifth, second and seventh in his last three starts. He got engaged to his wife, Kelley, at Torrey Pines State Reserve just north of the two courses. He vacations here regularly and is a member at the nearby Grand Golf Club.
So you can imagine his consternation when the PGA Tour’s medical director approached him that Saturday afternoon after he fired a 30 on the back nine to get to 18 under, six strokes clear. The prospect of getting sick, his parents, the lost title, the quarantine, the U.S. Open at Torrey …
Rahm listened, bent over, buried his face in his hands.
He had been subjected to extra testing after recently being in contact with someone with the virus. Tour officials indicated he wouldn’t have been had he been fully vaccinated — the operative word, we learned Tuesday, being fully.
Rahm said he indeed got the shot but hadn’t cleared the required 14-day window after receiving it.
“Looking back on it, yeah, I guess I wish I would have done it earlier,” he said. “But thinking on scheduling purposes and having the PGA [Championship] and defending at Memorial, to be honest, it wasn’t on my mind. I’m not going to lie. I was trying to just get ready for a golf tournament. If I had done it a few days earlier, probably we wouldn’t be having these conversations right now.
“It is what it is. We move on.”
He watched the final round of the Memorial on TV, partly for the playoff drama between Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa, partly to see “how close they were going to get to 18under.”
They didn’t. The winning score was 13 under. Cantlay beat Morikawa in the playoff.
“Building a six-shot lead through three rounds on that golf course, he was playing some amazing golf,” Morikawa said. “I gave him a call Sunday night and just said I felt gutted for him. It wasn’t a good feeling … because you knew how well he was playing.”
Back home, Rahm was able to visit with his mother, who is fully vaccinated, but not his father. He stayed away from his son and didn’t get to experience his parents seeing him for the first time.
“That,” he said, “was truly, truly a hard thing.”
He says he didn’t hit a golf ball outdoors for more than a week. He has an indoor simulator at home but acknowledged it got “repetitive” after 30 minutes or an hour. He rewatched Season 4 of the animated sitcom “Rick and Morty” in preparation for the release of Season 5. He stayed in his room and read a lot.
He had COVID-19 tests Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday from a doctor who came to the house: positive, positive, positive. On Friday, he learned his test Thursday was negative. On Saturday morning, the Friday result returned negative as well — lifting the tour’s quarantine protocol. He was a free man again.
“To all the people criticizing the PGA Tour, they shouldn’t,” Rahm said. “We are in a pandemic, and even though this virus has very different forms of attacking people, you never know what reaction you’re going to get. So the PGA Tour did what they had to do.
Phil Mickelson, fresh off his win in the PGA Championship, says he’s learned a lot from watching seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady over the years.
“I’ve heard a lot of different theories: I should have played alone, I shouldn’t have — that’s nonsense. The rules are there, and it’s clear. I’m not going to lie, I was fully aware when I was in tracing protocol that that was a possibility. I knew that could happen. I was hoping it wouldn’t. I was playing like it’s not going to, but I support what the PGA Tour did.”
Water under the bridge now. Rahm is back in his happy place, literally and figuratively.
He grew up in Barrika in Spain’s Basque region, where the cliffs along the Atlantic Ocean bear a striking resemblance to those at Torrey Pines.
As a senior at Arizona State, he just missed making the field for the Farmers Insurance Open at a Monday qualifier. The next year, he won it.
His wife, who was a javelin thrower at Arizona State, has a longer connection with the area. She and her family regularly came to San Diego on vacation.
“It was only right that I proposed in our special place,” Rahm said. “Plus, I promised her it would be the most unexpected time to propose. She expected it a bunch of other times through her life, and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it when we’re in sweatpants, OK? Don’t expect this whole movie speech and me being in a tux and all that.’
“I was able to do it in a really pretty spot. … It turned out perfect.”
Zeigler writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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