Why golf is the last thing on Jon Rahm’s mind

Tom Kershaw

When his phone pinged late on a Thursday night, Jon Rahm was still wide awake. Sitting in a Florida hotel, watching the news as sport surrendered to coronavirus with a domino-effect, the No 2 golfer in the world was already expecting confirmation that the Players Championship had been called off. Earlier that morning, while many in the US still saw the disease as a vague and foreign enemy, he had begun to wonder whether it was safe for his wife to walk around the course with him at all. By the time the text arrived, a large part of his mind had left the room completely.

Raised in a small corner of Bilbao on the north coast of Spain, where his family are living under quarantine, Rahm had begun to hear of the horrors back home long before it finally pierced America’s conscience. The stories relayed to him by his mother of hamstrung hospitals and policed streets are now being replicated all over the world. “When you start to see the reality of that, especially when it’s close to your family,” the 25-year-old pauses. “Golf really doesn’t matter at all.

“I talk to my family every day, I hear what they’re going through. My mum is a midwife so she’s the only one allowed out of the house. She has to take her medical ID everywhere because she’ll be stopped by police. She wears a mask and is protected from head to toe to try and stay safe, she goes early and leaves late. It’s very hard. There are cases in hospitals of babies being delivered when their mum has been infected by the virus.

“The rest of my family – my parents, brother, grandma and two cousins – all live on the same street within 400 yards of each other. The only way they can see each other is on FaceTime. Maybe you can bump into each other at the supermarket, but even then you’ve got to keep social distance and have your temperature taken to check you’re not contagious. My brother hasn’t left the house in a week, he can’t get work, he’s not getting paid, there are so many people who can’t make a living. They have a welfare cheque each month, but it’s the bare minimum. I’m concerned about them. I’m concerned about what the future might be.”

In Spain alone, there have already been over 30,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The disease has left a hole in the heart of Madrid, now an eerie skeleton city where shops and schools are closed and up to 80 per cent of its population could be at risk. Of the near 2,182 lives it has claimed so far across the country, the vast majority are among its vulnerable elderly population, isolated in care homes with their families unable to visit. “The saddest part is people are passing away with nobody next to them,” Rahm says. “On your last day, you’re completely alone.

“I told my mum, if things keep progressing the way they are, I think we’re about a month away from America being like Spain. She was like ‘a month? More like a week’. I can only hope she’s wrong.”

Internationally, the panic and paranoia have arrived at different speeds – stifled and then explosive in China, chaotic and wrought by political struggles in Iran, gradual until suddenly uncontainable in Italy and Spain. In suburban Arizona, where Rahm lives with his wife Kelley, it hasn’t yet taken a grip over daily life, but the claws are still there. Residents starting to swarm over staples at the supermarkets, “carrying whole carts of toilet roll and paper towels”, queues beginning to stretch down the street. “People are in pre-quarantine mode, thinking everything is going to close down,” he says. “But even in Spain, they are still open now. People aren’t aware. If we’re going and buying everything we can instead of what we need, there are going to be people left with nothing at all.”

As the world has turned toxic – in more ways than one – the pandemic has reflected the best and worst in us all. Rahm knows his family’s situation has made the crisis more personal and poignant, but he still can’t fathom how in states such as California, where lockdown looms over major cities, the beaches stay packed and college students continue to revel in spring break. “It’s like some people are treating it like it’s a joke,” he says, the warmth emotion momentarily leaving his voice.

“At the same time as police are patrolling the streets in Spain, Italy and France trying to keep people safe, people putting their lives at risk to help others… I don’t know when it became cool to disregard the safety of other people. There’s a misunderstanding [of the gravity of the situation] but it’s a lack of willingness to believe what’s going on. It’s hard to watch.”

It will be at least two months before Rahm plays golf competitively again. A timeframe which might feel insignificant, but actually represents one of his longest breaks since being offered a scholarship to America as a 17-year-old – the launchpad from where he became the world’s No 1 amateur and the face of golf’s youngest generation. For now, the days are broken up by phone calls and intermittent training sessions. He’s trying to increase his activity on social media to raise awareness and communicate positivity, and while he and his wife never had the time to take a honeymoon, for the first time in recent memory, they can at least spend every second of the day together. Consumed by worries for his family back in Spain, those are the small things to cling on to. “The only thing I can do is call them and try to keep them entertained for about an hour a day,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do [until golf returns]. I honestly can’t tell you, but I’m not even thinking about it. That’s not what’s on my mind right now.”

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