John Feinstein

Charlie Rymer’s battle with COVID-19: ‘I was absolutely scared’

July 02, 2020

Charlie Rymer’s voice was a little hoarse and clearly strained on the phone Wednesday afternoon. I asked him if he was certain he was up to a conversation, and he laughed. “I’m always up for talking,” he said. “Especially if I can have a little fun. I could use some fun right now.”

Rymer has always been one of golf’s fun and funny guys. After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1990, he played for four full seasons on the PGA Tour and the (then) Nike Tour, his highest PGA Tour finish a third place at Houston in 1995. He won once on the Nike Tour. By the time he was 30, it was apparent his real future was talking about golf more than playing golf. He went to work for ESPN—when the network still had a full schedule of tournaments—at the end of 1998 and then joined Golf Channel in 2009. Two years ago, he left Golf Channel, moved his family from Orlando to Murrells Inlet, S.C., to take a job promoting golf in Myrtle Beach. He still works 10 to 12 tournaments a year for Westwood One Radio.

Humor has always been Rymer’s staple. But there haven’t been a lot of laughs for him or his family in the past week. Ten days ago, he had driven to Chattanooga to do some promotional work for a new golf course there. On the way home—an eight-hour drive—he began to feel sick. A couple of days before that, he’d done a talk at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, so he wondered if he’d just pushed himself a little too hard.

“I was very careful both places,” he said. “Did the social distancing, wore a mask most of the time. I followed all the protocols. But I felt bad enough driving home that I pulled off the Interstate to a Walgreens to get some meds and buy a thermometer. I had a low-grade fever, but my first thought was I just had a bad cold or I was exhausted.”

He got home, but a day later felt much worse: His temperature was climbing, he was having coughing fits and struggling to get his breath back. His oxygen levels were low and his blood pressure was high. When his temperature spiked at 104.7, his wife, Carol, said it was time to go to the hospital. Carol is a registered nurse. Rymer didn’t argue.

“I’m lucky that she’s an RN, which is probably why I didn’t do any manly man stuff and argue with her,” he said. “If we’d waited any longer, who knows?”

Carol took her husband to Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital, one of two hospitals where she works. Because of COVID-19 protocols, she couldn’t even walk him in. Soon after, Rymer found himself alone in a room hooked up to all sorts of IV tubes. The worst part was the loneliness. No visitors allowed.

“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t nights where I lay there alone in the dark thinking some pretty depressing thoughts,” he said. “I mean, I’m 52, and even though I’ve always been, let’s say, a big guy, I’ve always been healthy. I’d never faced anything like this before.

“I knew all the statistics. I knew that only 1.5 percent of people who contract the disease die. That sounds like pretty good odds until you’re lying in a hospital bed all by yourself and you wonder if you’re ever going to go home again. I was absolutely scared. There were a couple of times when I thought it might be time to call the boys and get them to come home.”

Rymer has two sons. Charlie is 23 and lives in Atlanta; Hayden is 22 and lives in Chattanooga.

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Scott Halleran

Rymer worked at Golf Channel for a decade, serving as one of the primary hosts of Morning Drive before leaving the network in 2018.

Through it all, there were two lights at the end of the tunnel: The first was the care Rymer was receiving from the doctors and nurses in the hospital. He watched them work, trying to cheer him up, and was awed by what they were doing. “Like the odds, you don’t really think about it until you see it up close,” he said. “I’d read about what the people on the front lines were going through, but seeing the way they clearly cared and how they went about their work, and thinking about all of them doing it day after day, it really hit me how amazing and truly courageous they all are. It certainly makes the protected world of golf I live in seem a lot less daunting.”

The second light was that the meds began to work on him quickly, and he began to feel better. His temperature came down; the coughing fits and the seizures lessened in frequency and length. It wasn’t as if he was ready to jump out of bed after a day or two, but he knew he was getting better. That was nice for his body, but equally good for his mind.

“They’d told me I was going to be there for a week—which would have been Thursday—he said. “But by Tuesday, they said I could go home. I’d been there five days. I think having an RN to take care of me made them feel better about it, but boy, was it a joy just to get home.”

Rymer knows he isn’t all the way back yet. He lost 20 pounds during the ordeal. He tried to go for a short walk after getting home and realized he was still weak. “I probably walked a couple hundred yards, and I had to stop,” he said. “I think there was part of me that thought since I felt so much better and I was out of the hospital, I’d be back up and running in a couple more days. It’s going to take longer than that.”

Not surprisingly, Carol also has tested positive for COVID-19, but she is asymptomatic.

“Boy, am I grateful for that,” Rymer said.

That’s the emotion he feels most often right now: gratitude. He’s grateful to be alive and feeling better, grateful for the treatment he got at the hospital, and grateful to all the people who have reached out to him since he tweeted about his illness after getting home.

Country singer Vince Gill, a very good golfer Rymer has played with often, sent a video that was entertaining and funny. Former Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein sent a text, and so did Pete Bevacqua, the president of the NBC Sports Group. Quite a few players also got in touch, including Harris English, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I still can’t do a whole lot, so it’s been nice to sit here and read some of the notes and then take some time to respond and say thank you,” Rymer said. “I’d never say this is something I’d want to go through or would want to see anyone to go through, but I think in the end it can be a blessing.”

The only negative that came from the tweets he sent out were some angry responses from people who didn’t like the fact that he urged people to be cautious and understand that the disease is still dangerous. “I have to admit that shocked me,” he said. “I’m just not used to that kind of thing. I talk about golf most of the time. I wasn’t making any kind of political statement. I was just trying to say we all need to be careful.”

Rymer has been making notes about ways to “un-clutter” his life. “I just want to make sure I appreciate every breath I have left—and I hope there are a lot of them,” he said. “Instead of sitting down to watch another TV show, I want to take a walk with my wife, make sure I’m in touch with my sons, see my granddaughter. Be good at what I do—whether it’s my work for Myrtle Beach or getting back on television, if that happens. When you have time to think that you hadn’t planned on having, why not try to make something good come of it?”

Rymer knows how lucky he was and is. “I feel like I’m back among the 98.5 percent,” he said, laughing quietly one more time. “It’s a much better place to be than where I was a few days ago.”

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