Jon Rahm made two golf legends proud on Sunday.
By transmuting a four-stroke 54-hole lead into a dominant five-and-then-three-stroke (more on that later) victory at The Memorial Tournament Presented By Nationwide, the precocious 25-year-old Rahm claimed his fourth career PGA Tour title in a most envious way: at Muirfield Village Golf Club right in front of course designer and tournament host Jack Nicklaus. After the victory, Rahm even told the 18-time major champion Nicklaus that he just wanted to be like him.
And in winning against a ridiculously-stacked field, he no doubt made the late, great Seve Ballesteros proud. More than 34 years after the 50-time European Tour winner Ballesteros became the first Spaniard to reach No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), Rahm staked his claim as the second.
The celebrated Arizona State product who holds the record for the most weeks (60) at No. 1 in the world amateur rankings picked an especially impressive time to assert himself as the world’s best. To say that The Memorial played difficult on Sunday would be an understatement: the average score was the highest in any event since the first round of the 2018 U.S. Open, and the highest in any non-major in more than four years.
If it feels like the PGA Tour was at Muirfield Village very recently, it is because they were. As part of the re-scheduling scramble following the three-month COVID-19 layoff, Jack’s Place was the host venue for two consecutive tournaments, the first time that has occurred on Tour since 1957. However, the course could not have played differently over those two weeks.
At last week’s Workday Charity Open, 57 players finished under-par, led by the 19-under score of Collin Morikawa.
This week? Just nine players finished under-par, despite a much, much better field, one that included 17 of the top 20 in the OWGR.
Rahm accelerated ahead of the field on Saturday, carding four consecutive birdies on the back nine to accumulate his four-stroke lead over Ryan Palmer and Tony Finau. Then, on a windy Sunday in excruciatingly difficult conditions, the field collapsed, but Rahm continued to shine. After a front nine that comprised two birdies and seven pars, Rahm hit the turn at 14-under for the tournament, giving himself a mammoth eight-stroke cushion for his fourth Tour victory in the past four seasons.
But then Muirfield finally got in some shots on Rahm. After a bogey on 10, Rahm’s tee shot on 11 landed in the water, leading to a double-bogey. As Palmer stabilized on the back, Rahm added another bogey on 14, and suddenly, the lead was just three with three to go, the same lead that Justin Thomas gave up on this same course to Morikawa just a week ago.
Then came the par-3 16th hole. Palmer barely cleared the water in front of the green, leaving himself a birdie putt from the fringe. Meanwhile, Rahm went left and long, and was in deep grass on the short side of the green, giving himself a very difficult shot with very little to work with. But for Rahm…. It was enough. He emphatically holed the chip; an unbelievable shot that immediately went down in Muirfield Village lore. The lead rose to four with two to go, and two pars later, Rahm finished his Sunday round at a very-respectable 1-over 73, and a five shot victory.
After he was finished, however, he was given a two-shot penalty, as it was determined that he caused his ball to barely move when he grounded his club before his miraculous 16th hole chip-in. It was a little stunning to Rahm when he learned of it in his post-round interview, but he handled it with class, and all it meant was a 75 instead of a 73 and a three-shot victory over Palmer instead of five shots.
The victory was unchanged and his new standing as the World No. 1 (replacing Rory McIlroy) was still intact.
He will need to hold the World No. 1 for an additional 59 weeks to match his amateur record, but the way he conquered Muirfield this week, and the advanced skill he has shown to this point in his career, it would be unwise to bet against him.
Final Top-10 Finishers
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Jon Rahm -9 (+3)
2. Ryan Palmer -6 (+2)
3. Matthew Fitzpatrick -5 (-4)
4. Matt Wallace -4 (E)
4. Jason Day -4 (+1)
6. Mackenzie Hughes -3 (E)
6. Henrik Norlander -3 (+2)
8. Tony Finau -2 (+6)
9. Kevin Na -1 (+1)
10. Luke List E (-1)
10. Patrick Reed E (-1)
10. Xinjun Zhang E (+1)
Final Stat Leaders
Driving: Luke List (327.2)
Fairways: Xander Schauffele (41/56, 73.2%)
Greens: Xander Schauffele (57/72, 79.2%)
Putts/GIR: Tony Finau (66/1.548)
Birdies: Tony Finau (21)
How Jon Rahm Won the Memorial
Very little from last week’s Workday Charity Classic carried over into The Memorial, but one thing that apparently did: Rahm’s hot finish.
Rahm had been on a tear worldwide before the coronavirus layoff, but appeared rusty when play resumed, finishing T33 and T37 in the first two events. He similarly struggled through three rounds a week ago at Muirfield, shooting 72, 70, and 75 respectively, before going off for a Sunday field-low 8-under 64 to propel up the leaderboard into a T27 result. He shot in the 60s in his first three Memorial rounds before his Sunday 75, which was undeniably better than that score would indicate.
Rahm’s 18 birdies for the week was tied for third in the field, while his seven bogeys tied for first.He led the field for the week in strokes gained: around-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and strokes gained total. He was third in greens in regulation and scrambling, and fourth in driving accuracy, and strokes gained: off the tee, the latter of which he has finished in the top 5 on Tour in each of the past three seasons.
Rahm’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 293.4 (36th)
Fairways: 64.3%, 35/56 (4th)
Greens: 66.7%, 48/72 (3rd)
Putts/Per GIR: 82/1.71 (17th)
Scores: 18 Birdies, 46 Pars, 7 Bogeys, 1 Double
Off the Tee: 4.196 (4th)
Approach the Green: 5.004 (8th)
Tee to Green: 15.462 (1st)
Putting: 2.264 (28th)
Total: 17.726 (1st)
What Winning Means For Jon Rahm
Rahm tends to be streaky, so with the meat of the PGA Tour reschedule coming up soon, his competition should be fearful. Before the COVID layoff, the new world No. 1 had finished in the top 10 in 14 of his previous 19 starts worldwide, including three European Tour victories and three runner-ups (2 PGA, 1 European).
Rahm has yet to really contend down the stretch at a major, but his results have been there, as he has five top-11 finishes in the eight majors played in the last two seasons, including a T3, a T4, and a solo-4th. Among his four PGA Tour victories, this was the strongest field he has defeated.
Rahm’s 2019-20 Season
Cuts Made: 9
Wins: 1 (Memorial)
Additional Top 10: 4
Earnings: $3,685,112 (7th)
FedExCup Pts: 1,224 (8th)
World Rank Before/After: 2/1
Red numbers were extremely difficult to come by on Sunday, as just five of 74 players shot under par. The best of those rounds, by far, came from Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick, who shook off an opening bogey to post 4-under 68.
In the process, the 25-year-old netted his best PGA Tour finish, moving from T18 to solo-third at 5-under. It was the only Sunday round in the 60s, something he was also the only player to do on Sunday at March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he finished T9.
The only other Sunday round of better than 1-under came from a surprising place in 2006 champion Carl Pettersson. The 42-year-old Swede won five times on Tour between 2005 and 2012, but has seen his profile absolutely plummet over the past five seasons, having made just 11 cuts in 60 starts, and tallying $0 in Tour earnings since July of 2017.
This was his only start of the 2020 season, but did very well to make the cut with even-par rounds the first two days before a 7-over 79 knocked him down to 67th place going into the final day. However, a 3-under front-nine led to a 2-under 70 that tied for the second-best round of the final day, and raised him 29 spots into a share of 38th place.
That other 70 came from four-time Tour winner Xander Schauffele, who tallied that 2-under number in spite of five Sunday bogeys. Even more impressively, Schauffele looked dead in the water after dropping to 8-over through 13 holes on the first day, but the 26-year-old battled back to make the cut on the number, and eventually reached T13 for the week, a 32-position Sunday jump.
Tony Finau has been in the mix at many events, including several majors, accumulating 36 top 10s in the process, but he is still looking for his first victory on U.S. soil, with his only Tour win coming in a 2016 opposite-field event in Puerto Rico.
The 30-year-old led after 18 and 36 holes, and was in second place going into the final round, but Sunday was just not his day. Finau collapsed from contention with a bogey-bogey-triple stretch on the front nine that eventually led to a 6-over 78 that dropped him into solo-eighth.
Defending champion Patrick Cantlay had gotten himself back into the mix before limping down the Saturday finish line, and was even worse on Sunday. His two birdies were more than cancelled out by five bogeys and two doubles, as a 7-over 79 dropped him from T9 to T32.
However, nobody had a worse Sunday than Danny Willett. The 2016 Masters champion lost his game after his breakthrough major, but had battled back to respectability moving from 442nd in the world rankings in 2018 to 29th at the end of 2019.
Willett had again been struggling in 2020 until a T4 two weeks ago at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He was 6-under through three rounds at Muirfield Village and was in fourth place, but he was beyond lost on Sunday. He had five bogeys to no birdies through 13 holes and then added double-bogeys on three of his last five to shoot a 10-over 82, which dropped him all the way into a share of 32nd place.
“Everything led to this, to be a part of Jack’s legacy. He’s probably pretty happy that the score was as low as it was. He was probably pretty happy that it played so difficult. I’ve been dreaming of that handshake many times.
“Well, it was a fist-bump because of the situation, but still, how many people can say they got a congratulatory fist-bump from Jack Nicklaus?”
– Jon Rahm, The Memorial Tournament Champion