A high-profile COVID-19 cautionary tale: Golfer Jon Rahm

The Seattle Times

Professional golfer Jon Rahm nearly fell to his knees on Saturday after learning that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament in Ohio. In that moment of anguish, did he give any thought to everyone else affected by his decision not to vaccinate weeks ago?

Rahm had just finished the third round (of four) at the PGA event when officials delivered the bad news next to the 18th green. He held a six-stroke lead, and in golf, that’s nearly insurmountable. Had he won, the first-place prize was $1.67 million. Second place was worth $1 million.

But don’t cry for Rahm, a Spaniard who is No. 3 in the world rankings. He’s won nearly $4 million already this season. His family, which now lives in Arizona, won’t go hungry. He also has lucrative sponsorships, though presumably not from Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson.

Rahm could have gotten a vaccine shot in Arizona in March, and the tour has provided access. He could have been fully vaccinated by the Memorial Tournament. If he had been, he wouldn’t have been in the contact-tracing protocol, and given the documented effectiveness of the vaccines, he probably wouldn’t have contracted the virus.

But he wasn’t. Instead, he exposed other golfers and caddies to the virus. Some of them also have chosen not to be vaccinated. He also potentially exposed uncounted tournament staff, officials, journalists and fans. No major sporting event occurs without dozens, even hundreds of people working just off camera. Many of those people are at greater risk of bad COVID-19 outcomes than a 26-year-old athlete.

Whether to vaccinate is a personal choice, as vaccine-reluctant Americans are quick to remind everyone. But that choice has consequences. If one chooses not to vaccinate, one must own the deleterious outcomes. Rahm lost a lot of money, but his real impact might only unfold over weeks.

He has given the PGA Tour new cause to think about its vaccine protocols, and it should put a vaccine mandate for players and caddies on the table. Fans might reconsider whether sporting events have truly become safe enough to attend. And if someone exposed to Rahm winds up sick, in the hospital or worse, it could weigh heavily on his conscience.

Ironically, the Memorial Tournament was the first PGA Tour event to feature a vaccine pop-up tent. It was set up in coordination with OhioHealth and offered any fan a free one-shot vaccine. Few people took advantage of it.

It might feel like America is moving into a post-pandemic reality, but COVID-19 is pernicious and still out there. As lockdowns and mask-mandates ease, risk remains, especially for anyone who makes the personal — and foolish — choice not to vaccinate.