DUBLIN, Ohio – Nobody wants to be the A-word.
Asterisk, that is.
Jon Rahm was trampling the field like a Spanish elephant (wait, they have those?) and held a six-shot lead after 54 holes … for about 30 seconds, until being informed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was required to withdraw, per PGA Tour protocol rules.
Rahm was No. 1 in the world as recently as a year ago when he won here, had a Saturday in which he notched an ace and roasted a third-round 64 on a Muirfield Village Golf Club course set up as tough as any U.S. Open track not named Oakmont. Rahm was up by six and playing his best, about to match a figure from history named Tiger Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Memorials. It would take a collapse of Van de Veldian proportions to mess that up.
Well, rules are rules. As tough breaks go, Rahm’s forced WD was tougher to swallow than your high school lunchroom’s mystery meat. That said, if Rahm had been vaccinated, which only about 50 percent of PGA Tour players have been, the sad affair could’ve been avoided.
So, we’re left to hang an asterisk on the victory by Cantlay. However, don’t lose sight of the fact that Cantlay outlasted 2020 PGA champion Collin Morikawa to hang a big victory on the rest of the remaining Memorial Tournament field. Woods (him again), used to say, “It’s all about the W’s,” and he was right.
This Rahm-Memorial incident ranks low on the all-time sports asterisk chart that includes Roger Maris (whose 1961 home run record never actually carried an asterisk in the record books, even though nearly everyone thinks it did because it launched the asterisk as a sports thing); Lance Armstrong’s Tour de Denial titles; baseball’s Steroid Era inflatable heroes (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, A-Rod and the rest); National Football League records that were erased and/or asterisked as seasons grew from 12 to 17 games in your lifetime (if you’re a fellow geezer); all Pandemic Age NBA and NHL titles from last year with no fans; and the fabled Houston Astros, whose World Series title was tainted by high-tech sign-stealing. (Bang your trash bin with a bat if you agree: once for Yes, twice for No.)
Enough about the A-word. Well, almost enough. The thrilling back nine, featuring a three-way battle that included Scottie Scheffler, should have been the day’s big story. But everyone, including the participants, still were reeling from Saturday’s Rahm-com.
“It sucks that it was him,” said Morikawa, who decided to stay in college for four years at the University of California after Rahm explained to him why he did so at Arizona State. “We have all been really scared of this what-if scenario. It was very unfortunate for him to have a six-shot lead; he had it in his possession right there. People know the risks of not getting vaccinated. It’s a personal choice. No one should be judged. Jon is a great guy. I saw how many people were judging Jon on social media for this, and it’s got to stop. Why are we judging off that?”
An hour after hearing the news Saturday night about the WD, Morikawa said he mentally reset himself to go out with a chance to win. He and Cantlay, both Southern Californians, were tied at 12 under par, three shots ahead of Scheffler and Branden Grace.
“It was such a weird situation, so unfortunate,” said Cantlay, who actually caught COVID-19 last December and had an unpleasant 10-day experience. “Everyone knows it would’ve been a totally different day [with Jon]. I wouldn’t wish Jon’s situation on anyone who played so well the first three rounds. There was nothing I could do about, except reset and take the new paradigm and run with it.”
Cantlay, a UCLA alumnus, might be the first golfer to use “paradigm” in a winner’s news conference. He should get bonus FedEx Cup points for that.
There was no getting away from the Rahm situation until the very end, when it turned into a real shootout. Rahm was 18 under par through three rounds. When Cantlay bogeyed the first hole from a greenside bunker and Morikawa bogeyed it from the rough, one pressroom wise guy (not me, because I didn’t think of it) quipped, “Does that mean Rahm is seven shots ahead now?”
His remark was met with stony silence. “Too soon?” said Wise Guy, who was unable to contain a grin.
For the what-if record, Rahm could have shot 76 on Sunday and still finished ahead of Cantlay and Morikawa at 13 under par. (For scores, click here.)
One oddity of the outcome was that the Memorial Tournament winner was not someone who had a shank or a whiff in the final round. Don’t laugh. There was a 67 percent chance of that happening because Scheffler was the third member of this shootout. Scheffler shanked a wedge approach to the ninth green and got a huge break when it clanked off a tree branch in the right woods and caromed back into play. He salvaged a bogey and, impressively, rallied with birdies at 14 and 15 to get within one of the lead.
Morikawa hit his approach shot over the sixth green into some deep, thick rough. His attempt at a flop shot misfired when his sand wedge slid completely beneath the ball in the thick grass and didn’t move the ball at all. The fun part of the shot – well, not for him – was the gallery around the green not reacting at all, apparently thinking it had been a practice swing. No, it was the real deal. Morikawa made a great up-and-down from there for bogey.
Here's the shorthand finish: Morikawa inched ahead with a nice 8-foot birdie putt at the par-5 15th. Cantlay tied him at 17 when he holed the kind of clutch 24-footer that makes you think, Yeah, this is exactly the kind of pressure-putter any U.S. Ryder Cup team needs.
Scheffler bogeyed the 18th when he needed a birdie. Cantlay and Morikawa hit poor drives on the final hole. Morikawa splashed a sand shot to within 15 inches to save par. Cantlay narrowly missed a 25-footer for birdie and the win.
On the playoff hole, Morikawa hit the fairway but struck a poor 6-iron shot into gnarly rough short of the green. Cantlay found rough again and turned his approach over into the left greenside bunker. Morikawa chopped out to 6 feet above the cup. Cantlay ran his bunker shot 12 feet past the cup, but it was on the same line as his putt there in regulation. That putt didn’t curl left as expected. This time, he played his line within the cup and poured it into the center. When Morikawa missed, Cantlay had the victory. The media storylines about Morikawa piling up victories, along with his major title, were put on hold.
“I know Scottie was up there, but it felt like a battle with Collin all day,” Cantlay said. “It felt like me and him trading blows.”
Tournament host Jack Nicklaus gave Cantlay a friendly dig about the way he played the 18th hole twice. “He said something like, How’s the fairway up there right of the bunkers?” Cantlay said. It must be all right, because Cantlay made a pair of pars from there.
A win is a win no matter how it happens. Lucky pars, forced withdrawals, bad bounces. They’re part of the game. Asked if it will be awkward the next time he bumps into Rahm, Cantlay chuckled.
“I imagine there might be somewhat of a laugh,” he said. After a thoughtful pause, he added, “There’s just not much to say.”
In the record books, it’s simply Victory No. 4 for Cantlay, 29. In the memory banks, it’s the one that got away from Rahm because he was forced to let it get away, and Cantlay went out and won it.
“I think I’ll definitely remember it slightly differently,” Cantlay said. “There’s something I can’t put my finger on that makes it feel different. I hit a lot of clutch shots today, and that’s what I’ll remember.”
Give the man an A for this victory.
As a grade, not that other A-word.
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