DUBLIN, Ohio — So much about the Memorial felt as though golf was back to normal.
Thousands of fans surrounded the 18th hole, with tournament founder Jack Nicklaus sitting behind the green as he waited to greet the winner. Patrick Cantlay had a firm grip on the crystal trophy, just like he did two years ago the last time spectators roamed Muirfield Village.
It even rained, though not for very long.
But so much about Cantlay’s playoff victory Sunday over Collin Morikawa made this Memorial unlike any of the previous 45 editions.
This was as much about who won as who didn’t even play.
Cantlay, like everyone else at Muirfield Village, felt horrible than Jon Rahm went from tying tournament records — a 54-hole score of 18-under par and a six-shot lead — to being notified of a positive COVID-19 test that knocked him out of the final round.
What would have happened?
“Such a weird situation and so unfortunate because — me included — everyone knows it would have been a totally different day had that not happened,” Cantlay said. “But there’s nothing I could do about it.”
Cantlay walked off the 18th green Saturday evening facing a six-shot deficit and trying to figure out how low he would have to go in the final round to even have a chance. Morikawa had finished in the group ahead. He was in the clubhouse when his girlfriend sent a text to tell him what happened to Rahm.
“I went downstairs to look at the TV and you see what happened to Jon and it’s awful,” Morikawa said. “He deserved to go out and play really well, and he was 18 under. The rules are rules and you have to follow guidelines.”
Padraig Harrington suffered a fate similar to Rahm. He had a five-shot lead in the Benson & Hedges International Open on the European Tour in 2000 when the club asked for scorecards of the winner to post in the clubhouse. That’s when it was discovered Harrington never signed his card in the first round. The penalty was disqualification.
This felt out-of-the-blue because no one had tested positive during a tournament on the PGA Tour in 10 months. Branden Grace was one birdie out of the lead (modified Stableford scoring) after 36 holes in the Barracuda Championship when he tested positive and had to withdraw.
Rahm had been in the contact tracing program from having come in contact with someone who was COVID-19 positive, meaning he had to test every day to be able to play. Every test since Monday was negative until Saturday after the rain-delayed second round.
His 64 on Saturday was among the best rounds in Memorial history, nearly nine shots better than the average score. Rahm was the defending champion. He is No. 3 in the world.
And then he was gone.
“We’re all devastated,” Nicklaus said Sunday before the final round. “I wish we could figure out how to give Jon three-fourths of the trophy.”
Nicklaus also wondered how much his absence would weigh on the players left to contend, though that wasn’t a problem for either. This was out of their hands. All they could do was play.
“I did everything I could with the cards I was dealt,” Cantlay said. “And I really did a good job of focusing today on the task at hand and staying present, and that’s all you can do in this game.”
He did it a little better than everyone else.
Morikawa struggled to hit greens early, and then it cost him late. Cantlay missed six putts from 10 feet or closer — three for par, three for birdie — and thought it would cost him.
The tournament without Rahm did not lack for drama.
Morikawa had a one-shot lead with two holes to play when Cantlay poured in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to catch him. Both hit poor tee shots on the 18th and made par, each posting a 1-under 71 to finish at 13-under 275.
Rahm reached 13 under on the 11th hole Saturday. What would have happened? Cantlay said a 71 mostly likely wouldn’t have done the trick if Rahm were still playing. But he wasn’t.
On the 18th in the playoff, Morikawa missed the green from the fairway. Cantlay gouged an 8-iron from the deep rough into the bunker. He blasted out to 12 feet and made the par putt, a winner when Morikawa chipped to 6 feet and missed his putt for par.
That happens a lot in golf. It’s everything else at this Memorial that was unprecedented.
“He (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 said. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do except reset and just take the new paradigm and run with it.”
It took him to his fourth career victory, his second at the Memorial, and another handshake with Nicklaus off the 18th green. This was satisfying. It was special. And it was different.
“There’s maybe a little hint of something I can’t quite put my finger on,” Cantlay said. “But I mean, the emotions I felt out there and the focus that it took today was just as any other tournament.”