Jon Rahm was in the form of his career when he was forced to withdraw from last month’s Memorial golf tournament at Muirfield Village due to a positive coronavirus test while leading by six strokes after 54 holes. A period of self-isolation that limited his preparations for the US Open did nothing to change that.
On Sunday, the fiery 26-year-old became the first Spaniard to capture America’s national championship with a pair of heart-stopping birdie putts on the 71st and 72nd holes, winning by one shot over perennial bridesmaid Louis Oosthuizen while living up to oddsmakers’ billing as the pre-tournament favourite on a frenetic final day at Torrey Pines Golf Course.
“This is the power of positive thinking,” said Rahm, whose first major title will return him to No 1 in next week’s world rankings. “I was never resentful for anything that happened, and I don’t blame anybody. It’s been a difficult year and unfortunately Covid is a reality in this world and has affected a lot of people.
“I had the best possible hand because nobody in my family got sick, I barely had any symptoms. But we have lost lots of people back home. I know some people may say [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 No 3 started Sunday’s final round as one of 13 players within four shots of the lead, a logjam filled with rising ingenues and proven winners including five major champions. As one contender after another fell out of contention, Rahm played steady, effective golf up and down the 7,685-yard South Course until moving to strike in the final reel.
Trailing Oosthuizen by one shot, Rahm curled in a left-to-right downhill putt from 25 feet on the 17th hole for birdie. Then he got up and down from a greenside bunker on the par-five 18th, sinking an 18-foot birdie putt for a one-shot lead on the same green where he made a 60-footer for eagle to win his first PGA Tour title four years ago.
An agonising wait followed as Rahm decamped to the practice range to stay warm for a potential two-hole playoff. But when Oosthuizen bogeyed the 17th after sending a tee shot into the canyon to fall two shots adrift, then failed to chip in for eagle from 69 yards on the 18th fairway, Rahm could finally celebrate with wife Kelley and three-month-old son Kepa on a Father’s Day he won’t soon forget.
The US Open’s return to Torrey Pines was always going to suffer by comparisons to the first and only other time it was staged on this oceanside track in 2008, when Tiger Woods out-duelled Rocco Mediate in an 19-hole play-off while playing on a double stress fracture and torn anterior cruciate ligament that required surgery the next week.
The atmosphere for this year’s contest was at least partially neutered by the reduced attendance of about 13,000 spectators each day, roughly a quarter of the turnout from 13 years ago, despite California’s wholesale rollback of coronavirus restrictions on crowd gatherings earlier this week. And aside from a handful of compelling human-interest stories – the fairytale emergence of English journeyman and improbable halfway leader Richard Bland, the young Matthew Wolff’s return to major contention amid a uncommonly public grappling with mental health – there was little particularly memorable about the golf itself through most of the first three days, prompting familiar grumblings among the sport’s chattering class over Torrey Pines’ fitness as a US Open venue.
That all turned in the dying stages of Saturday’s third round when Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes made a 60-foot eagle putt on the 13th hole and Oosthuizen sank a 50-foot eagle putt on the 18th, setting off roars that evoked Woods’ eagles on the same holes all those years ago while moving them into a three-way tie for the 54-hole lead alongside Russell Henley, the rocksteady 32-year-old from Georgia who swore off Torrey Pines seven years ago but may now be reassessing his decision.
A US Open curiously devoid of excitement was suddenly bursting with possibility, setting the stage for a final round as wide open as the yawning canyon separating the South and North Courses. Thirteen players were separated by four shots as the final group teed off on Sunday afternoon – and eight of them within three – a star-studded peloton that included five major champions.
None of the overnight leaders at five-under-par were considered favorites to claim the winner’s share of roughly $2.25m (£1.59m) from a $12.5m purse, the highest among professional golf’s four bedrock events: not Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion who can boast runner-up finishes at the other three majors, including last month’s US PGA Championship; not Hughes, the unheralded Canadian who entered the tournament on a run of five straight missed cuts; not Henley, the 10-year PGA Tour veteran who has won three titles on the PGA Tour but none since 2017.
And it wasn’t long before each of them dropped strokes on the front nine, only intensifying the crowding atop the leaderboard. After early charges by former major champions Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa and a couple of dropped shots by the leaders, no fewer than nine players were in the lead at four-under or one stroke back – formidable scores at a tournament in which anything under par is often enough to win.
Others in the mix included Rahm and the Cheltenham-born Paul Casey, who both made up ground on their front nines to move within one shot of the pace. They were joined by the hard-charging Brooks Koepka, the two-time US Open champion who had gone five shots behind with a third-round 71, but got in on Sunday’s fun with birdies on the first, eighth, ninth and 13th holes.
“I’m not going to lie,” Rahm said. “I was trying not to look at the leaderboards, but the crowd was not cooperating. They were telling me exactly what was going on. So I decided to embrace it. You see all those great names, and to myself I thought whoever wins this one is going to be the one who won a US Open with a star-packed leaderboard.
“After I thought that, I went about my business.”
The thinning out began almost immediately on the back nine, where one by one the glut of contenders began moving in the wrong direction. No hole piled on more punishment than the 222-yard par-three 11th, the most difficult on the South Course, where more than half of the pack was derailed. That’s where things went pear-shaped for Hughes, who carded a double-bogey after his tee shot became lodged in a tree, and McIlroy, who three-putted to fall three shots off the lead (before double-bogeying the 12th).
Same for the defending champion DeChambeau, less than a half hour after he’d moved into sole possession of the lead at five-under by nearly acing the par-three eighth hole, who ended a streak of 30 straight holes a par or better with a bogey on the 11th. Any lingering hopes of a title defense were dashed with another bogey on 12th followed by a double on 13th – where a streaker briefly interrupted play on the fairway before getting lit up by San Diego’s finest. The stunning meltdown was complete long before his triple-bogey eight on the 17th.
Wolff three-putted on the 12th to drop to one-over and out of the running. Morikawa made a mess of things after finding a thick patch of rough on the par-five 13th, then watched a 12-foot putt lip out for a double-bogey seven. Koepka fell out of contention with bogeys on the 15th and 18th. The carnage benefitted Harris English, tied for 14th entering the final round and barely mentioned all day, who was in the clubhouse after making seven birdies in a final-round 68 to go three-under for the week. He finished third.
By the time Oosthuizen made his first birdie of the day on the 10th to move six-under and open a two-stroke lead while Rahm escaped the perilous 11th and 12th holes unscathed, it was an effective two-man race. But for Oosthuizen, a six-time runner-up at major championships since his breakthrough win at the 2010 Open at St Andrews, it was not to be.
“I’m second again,” he said. “Look, it’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. I’m playing good golf, but winning a major championship is not just going to happen. You need to go out and play good golf. I played good today, but I didn’t play good enough.
“I feel like I had my shots, I went for it, and that’s what you have to do to win majors. Sometimes it goes your way, and other times it doesn’t.”