On a TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course built to spotlight the game’s best ball-strikers, one of golf’s most talented tee-to-green machines returns intent to make amends for last year’s final-round meltdown
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Jon Rahm played unforgettable golf a year ago at the Players Championship.
He shot 64 in the third round, had a chance to tie the tournament scoring record of 63 but missed, and went from five strokes behind Rory McIlroy to one shot in front going into the final round. He said he didn’t really miss a shot.
The next day, Rahm played forgettable golf. He bogeyed three of the first four holes, went for the par-5 11th green in two from a fairway bunker – a questionable decision – and splashed the shot into the water. He also doused one at the par-3 17th hole. He shot 76, tied for 12th and missed an opportunity for the biggest victory of his relatively young PGA Tour career.
Rahm is back, fresh and rested after a two-week break in which he and his wife, Kelley, had a second wedding ceremony. One was for his family back home in Spain, and one was for his new family and friends in America.
Maybe you forgot his bleak finish last year, but Rahm hasn’t. It now falls into the older-but-wiser category of experiences.
He ranks among the tournament favorites this week. He already has shown that he can play well at TPC Sawgrass, and he has also shown that he can play well pretty much anywhere around the world. American golf fans might be surprised to realize that he is ranked No. 2 in the world. With a win at the Players this week, he could vault into the top spot past McIlroy. Rahm has three victories on the PGA Tour, most recently last spring at the Zurich Classic, a two-man team event. He has fared better on the European Tour, where he has won six times, including twice at DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
A lot has been made of McIlroy’s consistency. He has a streak of seven straight top-5 finishes. Rahm isn’t far behind. In 2020, he has finished 10th, second, T-9, T-17 and T-3. Last year, he finished T-3 at the U.S. Open, T-11 at the British Open, then seventh, T-3, T-5 and T-13 in his last four PGA Tour starts.
At 25, Rahm already has broken out, but the general feeling is that we haven’t begun to see his best yet. Last year’s Players was a good example of the Almost Rahm.
“I have to say, tie for 12th doesn’t reflect how good I played that week,” he said Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass. “It was a really fun week. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my best on Sunday.”
The epic fail only whetted Rahm’s appetite. That’s another reason to like his chances this week, or any other given Sunday. He’s got that hunger that great players have, and he is acquainted with this Pete Dye design well enough to know that he can play well here.
“It’s a ball-striking golf course,” Rahm said. “You need to hit it really well off the tee, no matter what you hit, and you need to be accurate with your irons. It should play to my strengths. That’s why I like it. Obviously, we have years like Webb Simpson’s [2018 victory], where he made every putt he looked at, but for the most part, ball-strikers have good success here. That’s why Adam Scott plays well almost every year, why Tiger Woods plays well, why Sergio Garcia is up there pretty much every other year. I’m playing well, so I hope I can play as well as I did last year.”
The Rahm formula is a good one. He gets his drives in play. He ranks fifth in strokes-gained from the tee, exactly where he finished in that category last season. Rahm also is better than most on the greens. He ranks fourth in strokes-gained putting.
So, he keeps it in play and makes putts. That’s a player who is going to contend a lot, finish in the top 10 a lot and win a lot. He’s got nine wins on two major pro tours since having turned pro in late 2016. Justin Thomas has 12 PGA Tour victories before he turns 27 next month. Rahm is hot on his heels there, just as he’s hot on McIlroy’s heels in the world rankings.
Rahm already has played extensively in different weather climates. He is from Barrika, Spain, on the northern coast, where it is cool and wet. He went to college at Arizona State and experienced the desert Southwest’s arid heat. Maybe that explains why he has won in humidity (New Orleans); cool dampness (Ireland); sea air (San Diego) and the desert (Palm Springs and Dubai).
“The TaylorMade guys tell a story that they thought they signed a top-10 player in the world coming out of college when they signed him,” McIlroy said of Rahm. “That just shows how highly they thought of him. He’s a wonderful player. He can use his fieriness to his advantage. He seems to be harnessing it well, and he hasn’t turned into a great player; he always was a great player.”
The only thing that has held Rahm back so far has been his penchant to get upset about bad shots or mistakes. He’s getting better about that, but when he gets praise for his improvement, he accepts it with grace but makes it clear that he’s still not as adept at that as he’d like. Getting married has helped; gaining first-hand experience has helped; failing at times has helped.
“Things couldn’t be better in my personal life with Kelley,” he said of his college sweetheart, the former Kelley Cahill. “She’s the reason I’m so happy now and one of the reasons why the bad weeks aren’t so bad.”
Rahm will be hard to miss Thursday and Friday. He is in the marquee pairing, with McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. The Tour put the world’s top-three-ranked players together for the purposes of good TV viewing.
“It’s exciting,” Rahm said. “You live for those moments. It’s nice to be recognized and just be a part of it. I kind of feel like, not the outsider, but they both have four major titles, been No. 1 in the world, FedEx Cup championships, many things. I might have something to prove besides just good golf.”
If this is the week when Rahm proves a major point, it will be unforgettable.
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