[PHOTO: Katelyn Mulcahy]
Not for the first time in his career, Jon Rahm is on a roll. The 28-year-old Spaniard ground out his ninth PGA Tour victory today at the American Express after a David-and-Goliath battle with rookie Davis Thompson. Victorious two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in his most recent start, and with two DP World Tour titles late last year, Rahm now owns four victories from his past six worldwide events.
Although he only climbed one place to world No. 3 – don’t get the man started about the Official World Golf Ranking – Rahm is officially the hottest man in golf.
Playing in the final group in the California desert with overnight co-leader Thompson and J.T. Poston, Rahm scraped together a four-under 68 on PGA West’s Stadium course. His 27-under 261 total was enough to beat Thompson (69) by one, while Xander Schauffele, who made a stunning albatross at the par-5 fifth in a 62, tied for third alongside Chris Kirk (64).
Thompson was making the 20th start of his PGA Tour career as he got into a Sunday showdown with former world No.1 and US Open champion. Yet the 23-year-old former world amateur No.1 didn’t back down, making the turn at two-under. He tied for the lead when Rahm bogeyed the par-3 13th.
The turning point – and most obvious sign it was Rahm’s day (again) – came when the two played the par-5 16th. After Thompson hit a poor tee shot and Rahm was in the fairway, 222 metres away, he seized the opportunity with an aggressive second shot that skirted the edge of the 19-foot-deep bunker and stayed up just shy of the green. He chipped and putted from 98 feet for birdie to reclaim a one-shot lead.
Rahm hung on with pars on the last two holes, watching Thompson’s long-range birdie putt on the par-3 17th track towards the hole only to ricochet off the flagstick, and then seeing him nearly chip in from off the green on the par-4 18th.
“It was tough, I’m not going to lie,” a relieved Rahm said. “[Thompson] gave me a real battle today and it was a lot of fun.”
Thompson was simply unable to match Rahm’s ball-striking; he hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 greens in regulation. “I felt really in command of my swing,” he said. “Every time I’ve felt like this in the past, I’ve ended up going on to win. That’s a really unique zone to put yourself in.”
Although Thompson failed to secure his maiden PGA Tour win, he walked away with more self-belief. Oh, and $US872,000 for finishing alone in second place, which is more than the total prizemoney he’d won from his previous 19 starts on tour.
“I had a great week,” he said. “Competing against the best in the world is my dream. I did that today and proved I can hang with ’em. It was a lot of fun.”
For Rahm, the question is how does he stay on this roll? A run that includes victories at the DP World Tour Championship and his native Spanish Open late last year.
In the short term, returning to Torrey Pines will help. Rahm secured his breakthrough PGA Tour win there in 2017 as well as his first Major title when he won the 2021 US Open on the South course. He also proposed to wife Kelley atop the cliffs of La Jolla.
“I’m going to go to Torrey, a place that I’m already very confident at, with very high hopes, knowing that I’m doing all the right things,” he said of this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
In the long term, Rahm says his work ethic will be how he stays in this rich vein of form. He’ll take inspiration from his idol, the late NBA great Kobe Bryant, who Rahm watched with keen interest while in college at Arizona State University. Just as Rahm was readying to turn pro in 2016, “Mamba” famously put up 60 points in his farewell NBA game – the 122nd time he had registered 40-plus points.
Rahm sees in himself the same perfectionist traits Bryant demonstrated.
“In college one [athlete] who got very near to my heart, if we go outside of golf, was Kobe Bryant,” Rahm said. “I [saw] a lot of similarities between us and in the way we approach our crafts. Craft is a key word for Kobe; having that obsessiveness that we both have over our game. Work ethic beats talent every day of the week.”
Rahm is also strengthening his ability to win in different ways. He came from behind in his victory at Kapalua with a closing 63, while at the DP World Tour finale in November he cruised to a two-shot win. That followed his six-shot triumph at the Open de Espana.
“In a weird way, I’m glad today went the way it went,” Rahm said. “I’ve enjoyed some runaway victories [and] some comebacks, but today was certainly a struggle. I really didn’t make any [long putts]. But I just kept battling.”
Rahm congratulated Thompson for the battle and predicted the University of Georgia alum would join the winner’s circle before too long. “What a heck of a player he is, honestly, and he’s doing all the right things… I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins soon.”
But winning soon, for a lot of players, will be tough if Rahm keeps playing at this level.