A victory this week at his adopted hometown’s Phoenix Open would give the Arizona State alumnus a shot at the world’s top ranking, though he clearly has his mind on other things
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Who’s No. 1? It’s been awhile since we golfaholics have had to think about that.
Brooks Koepka and his four major championships have been the obvious choice for most of the past 1½ years. Mathematically, Koepka has held that spot since his PGA Championship victory in May, a run of 37 consecutive weeks. This is his fourth time around as the golf world’s número uno.
That coveted top spot could change hands this week.
If Spain’s Jon Rahm wins the Waste Management Phoenix Open and Koepka finishes worse than a three-way tie for third at the Saudi International, Phoenix’s current favorite Arizona State alumnus will become No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. (*Phil Mickelson, the area’s former fave ASU alum, stiffed his long-time fans at TPC Scottsdale in favor of a hefty appearance fee in Saudi Arabia this week. Did he go for the money or to play against a weaker field? Discuss.)
Rahm, ranked No. 3 behind the idle Rory McIlroy, got off to a good start with an opening 67 but trailed leader Wyndham Clark by six strokes. Koepka was tied for 48th after the first round of the Saudi International.
I do not worship at the OWGR altar. It has too many flaws and built-in politics. As a fun topic of discussion, the ranking is excellent. As a way to determine who gets into major-championship fields, it’s a bad idea.
What’s important about this potential throne switch – Rahm and Koepka, I mean, not Meghan and Prince Harry – is that Rahm is so close. American golf observers are impressed with his skill and his potential, but we have undervalued his consistency. Also, Americans like to pretend that if the golf didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen. Newsflash: Rahm won three times internationally last year, including the year-end DP World Tour Championship and its $3 million prize and the season-long Race to Dubai and $2 million bonus. He led the European Tour’s Order of Merit, the only Spaniard to achieve that feat since the late Seve Ballesteros.
I like Rahm to get to No. 1 sooner or later. It could be later because the road to every major championship seems to run through Koepka, and he blocks that path like Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers blocked the right sweep in the 1960s glory days.
I also like Rahm to get to No. 1 because he’s so likable. He didn’t have much of a handle on English when he came to Arizona State, but he caught on quickly. He smiles a lot, which pleases galleries, and he seems to be pretty good-natured and humble. And he plays with emotion. Maybe too much, sometimes, but emotion is good.
When he was told about his money-leading feat that matched Ballesteros last November, Rahm was floored. “I didn’t even think about that,” he told media members in Dubai. “I feel like I’m going to start to cry.”
In a pre-tournament media gathering here Wednesday, he was answering a question and suddenly paused, trying to find the right word to describe what he wanted to say. He put a hand to his forehead in frustration and said, smiling, “I’m thinking in Spanish right now.” After a few moments, the English word came to him and he finished his answer.
Rahm is a new-age, tell-us-all-your-thoughts, call-it-as-he-sees-it breath of fresh air among golf’s stars. We’ve enjoyed McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Justin Thomas as winners who let us in behind the curtain to share their feelings. They were a welcome change after two decades of Tiger Woods and Mickelson, who rarely let us in, if they let us in at all.
Rahm finished second to Marc Leishman at the Farmers Insurance Open last weekend. He failed to check the scoreboard on the final green and thought he needed a birdie to win, a par to tie. He narrowly missed a long eagle putt, secured his par and figured he’d be in a playoff. Actually, he was a shot back, a fact he was surprised to learn.
Afterward, Rahm shared how he felt about all of Sunday’s events, not just his finish. It was a “sour feeling” not to get into a playoff, he said, but it also was very upsetting to hear of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death.
“He was one of my great idols that I was coordinating with a friend to meet soon and pick his brain,” Rahm said. “It’s unbelievable that he, his daughter and other people on the helicopter passed away. It’s truly unfortunate.
“There are much worse things going on in the world. There’s an epidemic in China that could kill thousands. Me missing a putt and not reading a scoreboard really doesn’t matter right now. I’m fortunate to be where I am, and my heart goes out to all those people in the helicopter and all those families, which are a lot more important than whether or not I make a putt.”
A member of the media then asked, “Your tee shot on 3, what was going on there?”
Rahm replied with his honest first reaction, saying, “I mean, seriously, after what I just said, we’re going to talk about that?”
You can’t fault honest emotion. End of interview. Let’s move on from his personality to his play. Few players have been more consistent over the past three seasons than Rahm. He scored his first PGA Tour victory in 2017 at the Farmers Insurance Open, got another the next year at the CareeerBuilders Challenge and scored his third in 2019, with teammate Ryan Palmer, at the Zurich Classic. He’s got six European Tour victories, including three in 2019.
While Koepka ascended to No. 1 by rising to the occasion in big events, Rahm has risen to the neighborhood of No. 1 with some wins sprinkled in among a lot of solid finishes. In 63 PGA Tour starts from 2017 to 2019, he made 55 cuts, and won three times among 28 top-10 finishes. In the new 2020 season, he was second at the unofficial Hero World Challenge, 10th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and second last week. He just keeps knocking on the door, in other words.
It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that he learned that the No. 1 ranking was within his reach this week.
“I was a little surprised,” he conceded. “I have been playing really, really good golf, especially since the U.S. Open. Being No. 1 is a consequence of good golf, so I’ve got to take care of business this week. It is every player’s goal to be No. 1, and it is a goal of mine at some point, but I’ve still got to take care of every day, make the right putts and hit the right shots for that to happen. I practice to be the best I can be, and hopefully, the best I can be takes me to No. 1 at some point.”
There are other moving parts involved in getting to the top. There is McIlroy, for one. There is Justin Thomas, who held the No. 1 spot for four weeks in mid-2018 and is highly motivated to get it back.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Thomas, who shot an opening-round 68. “It’s pretty cool walking around. I had it for all of two weeks or whatever, but it’s like, I’m better than every single person on this planet in golf. That’s a pretty satisfying feeling. Unfortunately, I have a ‘4’ next to my name right now.”
Thomas is 26, Rahm is 25. We have years to watch these players compete for titles, along with the likes of Koepka and McIlroy and a rejuvenated Tiger Woods.
Rahm was born in Barrika, Spain, and lives with his wife in Scottsdale. This week is a home game for him.
“I love being able to sleep in my own bed,” he said.
Wednesday, Rahm got another reminder of good things to come. He played in the pro-am with Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who won a record 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold. Rahm is a lock to represent Spain in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. His competition for that honor at the moment is No. 42 Sergio Garcia and No. 45 Rafa Cabrera Bello.
“There aren’t many things that would be a better feeling for an athlete than to say you have a gold medal from the Olympics,” Rahm said. “It’s a very select group of people who can say that in human history. So, it’s definitely a goal.”
It would be good to be No. 1. In fact, it would be golden.
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