Rob Oller: Bugs, Twitter wars and COVID-19 controversy. A weird 2021 Memorial had it all
Don’t fight the urge to rename the 2021 Memorial Tournament the Asterisk Open. You’re not alone. Even tournament host Jack Nicklaus sensed that air had escaped the balloon.
“It’ll be a little shallow, if that’s the right word, a little empty maybe to some extent,” Nicklaus said during Sunday’s final round, referring to the traditional handshake he offers each tournament winner as they exit the 18th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
“But the winner will have a big smile on his face, and he’ll be very happy,” Nicklaus stressed.
Patrick Cantlay rarely smiles on the golf course. Stoic to a fault. But the 29-year-old Californian beamed while shaking hands — no COVID-19 fist bump! — with Nicklaus after defeating Collin Morikawa on the second hole of a sudden death playoff.
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Cantlay deserved to win his second Memorial for what he accomplished on Sunday, but the 2019 and now 2021 champion wasn’t sure the tournament hadn’t already been won on Saturday — by Jon Rahm.
“There’s maybe a little hint of something I can’t quite put my finger on,” Cantlay said of his feelings toward winning a tournament that Rahm likely had wrapped up until testing positive for COVID-19 on Saturday and being forced to withdraw. Rahm had just completed a sterling round of 64 that gave him a six-shot lead with 18 to play when a tour official approached him behind the 18th green with the bad news.
“The focus that it took today was just like any other tournament,” Cantlay continued. “But such a weird situation, and very unfortunate. (Rahm) played so amazing the first three rounds that the way I felt Sunday morning was obviously a lot different than I felt walking off the 18th green on Saturday.”
Cantlay could only guess how he will feel years from now when looking back on his fourth PGA Tour win. But he’s pretty sure it won’t resonate with the same “I did it!” sense of accomplishment as the others.
“I think I’ll definitely remember it slightly different,” he said. “Again, it’s an unfortunate situation and not anything I would wish on anybody. He played so great for the first three rounds.”
I sense a theme developing. Rahm sorta successfully defended his 2020 Memorial title by sorta winning the ’21 Memorial. But not really.
“I don’t know how you send him a trophy for three-fourths of a tournament, but you’d certainly like to,” Nicklaus said.
It’s possible Rahm would have shot a final-round 78 and finished one shot out of the playoff. But that is a stretch. Only seven times since 1928 has a player lost a PGA Tour event after leading by six shots entering the final round. The lowest final round shot by a Memorial winner was Roger Maltbie's 76 in 1976. There was less chance of Rahm coughing up his lead than of Brooks Koepka praising Bryson DeChambeau on Twitter.
To be clear, Jack’s tourney did nothing wrong. The Memorial simply got caught between unfortunate circumstances and a preventable mess. If only Rahm had been fully vaccinated before arriving at Muirfield on Monday, the 26-year-old Spaniard would have been the toast of the town after finishing atop the leader board.
Instead, this oddest of Memorials will be remembered for cicadas, hecklers yelling “Brooksie” at DeChambeau and Rahm’s WD that quickly became red meat for Twitter. For every post applauding the tour for enforcing its rules and not allowing Rahm to play on Sunday, three more posts screamed that forcing Rahm to withdraw was ridiculous overreaction.
It is impossible to know how many of the social media flamethrowers actually care about golf or even knew of Rahm’s existence before Saturday, but I suspect pandemic politics was behind much of the vitriolic back-and-forth.
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Morikawa summed things up nicely with a level-minded sermon on the dual topic of respecting rules and casting stones.
“The rules are rules and you have to follow guidelines,” the sage 24-year-old said. “We knew all the risks going in … but it’s also a personal choice. I mean, no one should be judged. What I was seeing yesterday (Saturday) with how many people were judging Jon for doing this, doing that. It’s got to stop. Why are we judging people off that?”
Well said. Rules should be followed but also grace extended. Maybe that’s the final takeaway from the 2021 Memorial? Maybe golf was secondary to the lessons that can be learned? If so, then the Asterisk Open will become more than a fading footnote in tour history.
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Final standings, earnings.