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Column: Tales from the PGA Tour after a long year in golf

Two spectators and one golf writer should have seen this coming.

Jon Rahm finished the 15th hole at Muirfield Village during a practice round for the Memorial. Walking to the next tee, two spectators approached for an autograph.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” Rahm replied. “I’m in contact tracing.”

That was a response never heard in the year since golf returned from its pause because of the pandemic, peculiar enough to wonder if that was the perfect answer to avoid having to stop to sign. And then a reminder of that moment returned three days later.

Rahm walked off the 18th green with a six-shot lead and a record-tying score for 54 holes. He was approached by two PGA Tour officials, and Rahm doubled over in disbelief. After getting tested for COVID-19 every day since arriving, his latest one came back positive and he had to withdraw.

Golf began with no fans along the Pacific coast before going to some fans in Florida to a full house of (mostly American) fans at the Ryder Cup in Wisconsin. Along the way there were plenty of other memories that went beyond birdies, bogeys and bubbles.

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The gold medal meant just as much to Xander Schauffele’s parents. His father had his own Olympic aspirations until a car accident cost him his left eye and caused injuries that forced him to give up being a decathlete. His mother was raised in Japan and her parents still live there.

Stefan Schauffele leaned against a tree and shed tears as he watched his son on the top podium as the national anthem played. When it was over, he was wearing his son’s Olympic credentials. That said more about Xander than the moment.

“My wife wants me to make sure he didn’t throw this away,” Stefan Schauffele said. “Xander is notorious at throwing everything away, especially things that mean a lot to her. I promised to take it away as soon as I can.”

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Any trip to Torrey Pines is sure to bring memories of the Junior World Championship, no matter the pedigree of golfer.

David Winkle of Hambric Sports, who manages Dustin Johnson, was 14 when he played the Junior World at Torrey. He missed the cut, but a friend from Dallas was a top junior and in contention, so Winkle stayed to watch. His friend played the final round with Nathaniel Crosby, whose father was in the gallery.

Winkle scrolled through his phone and found the photo of him standing next to Bing Crosby, looking smooth as ever in a red cardigan.

The photo made the rounds in the media center at the U.S. Open, and one of the younger scribes showed his age. After he finally recognized Winkle with a full head of hair, he asked, “Who’s the guy in the sweater?”

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There is very little that is subtle about Jon Rahm making big putts, but one detail got his attention as he watched a replay of his U.S. Open victory.

Most times when he makes a big putt, the big Spaniard slams his fist toward the ground. When he made the 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines, he thrust his fist upward.

“I never fist bump up,” Rahm said months later. “But for some reason, I did that time. And I think it’s because right across from me, on the second level of the Lodge hotel, it was a Rolex box where I knew a part of my family was. So I think I was really celebrating with them at the same time.”

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A week after he had to withdraw from the Olympics because of a positive COVID-19 test, Bryson DeChambeau said he had not been vaccinated because he was young and he’d rather make sure people who really needed it had access. Apparently he wasn’t aware there was no shortage of the vaccine in the U.S.

When criticized, he decided to stop talking to the media. He doubled down on that policy during the BMW Championship when DeChambeau had a chance to shoot 59 at Caves Valley until missing a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole. He again shut off the media — except for spending all day with a journalist during the third round.

The standard bearer for his group, the person who walks around with a mobile scoreboard, was Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and member at Caves Valley. Whether DeChambeau was aware who Friedman was, he didn’t say.

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Kevin Kisner said at the start of the year there were courses he plays where he knows he has no realistic chance of winning. Then why play? “Because they give away a lot of money for 20th,” he famously replied.

The PGA Tour postseason venues did him no favors. Both were long and conditions were soft. Kisner started the FedEx Cup playoffs at No. 29 and needed everything to go his way to stay in the top 30 and reach the Tour Championship. It didn’t. He missed the cut at Liberty National and didn’t beat anyone at Caves Valley, finishing 24 shots behind.

“The first day when my ball plugged on No. 10, I knew it was going to be a long week. Top 20 would be as good as I could do here,” he said.

He was reminded they give away a lot of money for 20th.

“Yeah, they don’t for 70th,” he replied.

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Harry Higgs thought he was done with his media obligations after a 67 in the CJ Cup at The Summit in Las Vegas, so when a young girl asked for a souvenir, he happily gave her his cap. But as he walked up the hill, a tour official informed him that Golf Channel wanted him for an a television interview.

Panic started to set in. The young girl was gone. Higgs looked frantically around and found Rasmus Hojgaard, who played with him that day. The Dane also is sponsored by TaylorMade.

“Hey, can I borrow your hat?” Higgs said. “I’m in renegotiations with TaylorMade.”

They don’t have the same hat size, but Higgs managed to squeeze in his head and conducted the interview.

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The PGA Tour season reached its final day at East Lake with Patrick Cantlay leading Rahm by two shots. Commissioner Jay Monahan was on the first tee for the last round, as usual, and when the leaders teed off, he was asked what he was hoping to see.

Cantlay had won the BMW Championship with an amazing rally, which gave him three wins for the season. One of those was at the Memorial, where Rahm had the six-shot lead and had to withdraw because of the positive COVID-19 test.

Monahan thought about this for a minute before saying, “When they get to 15, a one-shot difference.”

Three hours later, Cantlay stood on the par-3 15th hole at 20-under par and Rahm was 19 under. Cantlay wound up winning the FedEx Cup by one shot.

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Tiger Woods remarkably was playing a golf tournament 10 months after his car crash, and everyone wanted to see him. Walking inside the ropes for the first round of the PNC Championship was Ian Poulter and 9-year-old son Joshua, who earlier had his picture taken with 12-year-old Charlie Woods.

Walking down the second fairway, Joshua asked Poulter, “Dad, what’s the age limit to play?”

Poulter was honest as ever. The PNC Championship is restricted to players who have won a major or The Players Championship.

“It’s not so much an age limit as it is what your old man has accomplished,” Poulter told him with a grin. “And unfortunately, your dad hasn’t accomplished enough. Unless they started counting Ryder Cups.”

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Hideki Matsuyama was in the mix in the 2015 Phoenix Open when the PGA Tour instructed all questions to go to the interpreter. The first one was directed at Matsuyama: Who do you like in the Super Bowl?

He leaned toward the microphone and replied in English, “Seattle Seahawks.”

That became a running joke over the years, although he would never pick a team.

The query was renewed this month to the now-Masters champion. Matsuyama replied this time in an email, through his interpreter, but he made his play.

“You always ask me that question and I always say, ‘I don’t know.’ But this year I’m going with a Tampa Bay repeat,” he said.

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