Jon Rahm was in the shape of his career than he was forced to retreat from the Memorial Golf Tournament at Muirfield Village last month for a positive coronavirus test while leading six strokes after 54 holes. A period of self-isolation that restricted his preparations for the US Open did nothing to change that.
On Sunday, the fiery 26-year-old, whose temperament temporarily obscured his great talent, became the first Spaniard to win America’s national championship with two breathtaking birdie putts on the 71st and 72nd holes and won with one stroke over the long-running bridesmaid Louis Oosthuizen while he lived up to the odds-makers’ bill as the pre-tournament favorite on a hectic afternoon in Torrey Pines golf Course.
“That is the power of positive thinking,” said Rahm, who will bring him back to number 1 in the world rankings next week with his first big title. “I’ve never been angry about anything that happened and I don’t blame anyone. It was a difficult year and unfortunately Covid is a reality in this world and has affected many people.
“I had the best possible hand because nobody in my family got sick, I hardly had any symptoms. But we lost a lot of people at home. I know some people say maybe [what happened at Memorial] was unfair, but it had to be done. We have to be aware of what is happening in this world. “
The world number 3 started the finals on Sunday as one of 13 players within four strokes of the lead, a jam full of aspiring ingenuity and proven winners. As one contender after another fell out of the race, Rahm played consistent, effective golf on the 7,685-yard South Course until he was about to hit the last roller.
After leaving Oosthuizen behind in one fell swoop, Rahm rolled downhill from left to right on the 17th hole for birdie from 25 feet. He then stepped up and down from a green bunker on Par 5 18th and sunk an 18-foot birdie putt for a one-shot lead on the same green he was on made a 60 foot for eagles winning his first PGA Tour title four years ago.
An excruciating wait ensued as Rahm left for the practice range to keep warm for a potential two-hole playoff. But when Oosthuizen bogeyed the 17th after sending a tee into the ravine to pass two shots and then failed to chip in for Eagle on the 18th fairway from 69 yards, Rahm was finally able to get on with his wife, Kelley and his He will not soon forget three-month-old son Kepa celebrating on Father’s Day.
“I feel like coming in here without having practiced a lot has relaxed me a little,” said Rahm, who spent the morning watching a Call of Duty League game before arriving on the pitch at 12:22 pm . “I thought you know what, if I play badly, I have an excuse. I have a rescue mission in case. I can see for myself, hey, I had Covid.
“But I feel like it has relaxed me a bit, and since Sunday at the PGA I’ve changed a little mentally on the golf course. I still had that courage, but like almost any mistake, I was less bothered. I couldn’t tell you why.
“I think it’s because I really made up my mind to be a role model for my son he’d be proud of, and I’ve done some things on the golf course in the past that I’m not proud of and myself wish I could fix it. “
The US Open’s return to Torrey Pines has always suffered from comparisons with the first and only other time played on this seaside track in 2008, when Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole play-off while he continued to play a double stress fracture and a torn anterior cruciate ligament that required surgery for the next week.
The mood for this year’s competition was at least partially castrated by the reduced attendance of around 13,000 viewers daily, around a quarter of the turnout from 13 years ago, despite the California wholesale trade Coronavirus restrictions rollback at mass gatherings earlier this week. And aside from a handful of compelling stories of human interest – the Fairytale creation English journeyman and unlikely halftime leader Richard Bland, the return of young Matthew Wolff on a major point of contention amid an unusually public debate over mental health – for most of the first three days the golf itself was barely remembered, leading to familiar grumbling underneath the athletes led chattering class on the fitness of Torrey Pines as the venue for the US Open.
That all turned in the final stage of the third round on Saturday when Canadian Mackenzie Hughes made a 60-foot eagle putt on the 13th hole and Oosthuizen on the 18th hole all those years ago while he was by the side of Russell Henley, the 32-year-old Georgia rocksteady who renounced Torrey Pines seven years ago but could now reconsider his decision, turned it into a threesome for the 54-hole lead.
A strangely tension-free US Open was suddenly bursting with possibilities and set the stage for a final lap that was as wide open as the yawning gorge that separates the south and north courses. Thirteen players were separated by four shots as the final group tee off on Sunday afternoon – and eight of them within three – a high-profile peloton that included five great champions.
None of the five-under-par overnight leaders were considered favorites to capture the roughly $ 2.25 million (£ 1.59 million) winning stake out of a $ 12.5 million wallet, the highest of the rankings four foundations of professional golf: not Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open Champion who finished second in the other three majors, including last month’s US PGA Championship; not Hughes, the unannounced Canadian who entered the tournament with a series of five straight missed cuts; not Henley, the 10 year old PGA tour Veteran who has won three titles on the racetrack but not one since 2017.
And it didn’t take long for each of them to drop punches on the top nine, adding to the crush at the top of the leaderboard. After early attacks from former major champions Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa, no fewer than nine players were in the lead by four under or one stroke back – impressive results in a tournament where anything under par is often enough to win win.
Others in the mix were Rahm and Cheltenham-born Paul Casey, both of whom made up ground on their top nine to pick up the pace in one fell swoop. Then there was the stormy Brooks Koepka, the two-time US Open champion, who had five strokes behind him with a 71 in the third round, but started the fun on Sunday with birdies on the first, eighth, ninth and 13th holes .
“I’m not going to lie,” said Rahm. “I tried not to look at the leaderboards, but the audience didn’t cooperate. They told me exactly what was going on. So I decided to take it. You see all these great names and to me I thought whoever wins that title is going to be the one who won a US Open with a high profile ranking.
“After thinking that, I went about my business.”
The thinning began abruptly on the second nine, where almost en masse the tide of competitors began to move in the wrong direction. No hole was as punished as the 222-yard par-three 11th, the most difficult on the South Course, where more than half of the pack derailed. Here it was pear-shaped for Hughes, who carded a double bogey after his tee shot got stuck in a tree, and McIlroy, who took three putti to put three shots off the lead (before double-bogeying the 12th to seal his fate).
The same goes for defending champion DeChambeau, who less than half an hour after taking sole ownership of the lead at Five-Under by nearly cracking the eighth hole with par three, a specter on the 11th, all hopes of defending the title became wiped out with another bogey in 12th place and a double in 13th place – whereby a Flitzer briefly interrupted game on the fairway before being lit by San Diego’s finest. The breathtaking meltdown was completed long before his triple bogey eight on the 17th.
Wolff made a three-way put on the 12th to fall to a one-over and go out of the running. Morikawa made a mess after finding a thick patch of rough on par 13th, then watched a 12-foot putt lip come out for a double bogey seven. Koepka retired on the 15th and 18th with bogeys. The carnage benefited American Harris English, who went straight to the finals in 14th and barely mentioned all day, who was in the clubhouse after making seven birdies in a final 68 to go under for week three . He finished third.
When Oosthuizen made his first birdie of the day on the 10th, taking six under and a two-stroke advantage while Rahm survived dangerous holes 11 and 12 unscathed, it was an effective two-man race. But it shouldn’t be for the 38-year-old South African, who has been runner-up in the majors six times since his breakthrough win at the 2010 Open in St. Andrews.
“I’m second again,” complained Oosthuizen. “Look, it’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. I play good golf, but winning a big championship is not going to happen easily. You need to go out and play good golf. I played well today but I didn’t play well enough.
“I feel like I had my chance, I chose it and that’s what you have to do to win majors. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. “