HARTFORD, Conn. – Golf has a way of testing a competitor’s nerves and intestinal fortitude more than any other sport. Consider Jon Rahm, who proved that justice can prevail on Sunday.
Two weeks ago, Rahm had to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament with a six-stroke lead after three rounds when he learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would have to quarantine for 10 days. Rahm was informed alongside the 18th green – in full view of thousands of spectators and millions viewing on television – immediately leaned over in despair while patted on the back by an onlooker and said, “No, not again.”
Compounding the defending champion’s disappointment of losing a shot at $1.7 million was he had just seen his parents for the first time in 18 months after they traveled from Spain to Dublin, Ohio. Rahm had tested positive in the past but was negative the four previous days before two positive readings forced his withdrawal.
Though devastated, Rahm accepted the penalty and said in an Instagram that he wished the other players well in the final round that he would be watching. What he saw was Patrick Cantlay winning the event for the second time and getting another congratulatory handshake from host Jack Nicklaus not far from where he learned he was out of the tournament 24 hours earlier.
Sunday, the scenario could not have been more different or produced a more pleasant ending. Rahm made curling birdie putts of 25 and 24 feet on the final two holes, the second eliciting a double fist pump, to rally for a one-stroke victory over Louis Oosthuizen in the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. Rahm’s closing 4-under-par 67 matched the low score of the week and gave him a 72-hole total of 6-under 278. After his second clutch stroke disappeared, he headed for his wife Kelley, who was holding their son, Kepa, born on April 3, in the ultimate Father’s Day present.
Rahm’s first major championship title enabled him to join Seve Ballesteros, his hero, Jose Maria-Olazabal and Sergio Garcia as winners of golf’s most prestigious events. Rahm also joined Ben Hogan (Oakmont, 1953), Jack Nicklaus (Baltusrol, 1980) and Tom Watson (Pebble Beach, 1982) as the only players to birdie the last two holes to win the U.S. Open and moved to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.
“I’d said I’m a big believer in karma,” Rahm said. “After what happened a couple week ago, I stayed really positive knowing something special was going to happen in a special place, though I wasn’t sure it was going to be here. It was an incredible the way it ended and proved that from your greatest setbacks you can have your biggest successes.
“I have a hard time explaining what just happened because I can’t even believe I made the last two putts and I’m the first Spaniard ever to win a U.S. Open. This is definitely for Seve. I know he tried a lot, and usually we think a lot about him at the Masters, but I know he wanted to win this one most of all. I think I might have willed the last putt into the cup and was the power of positive thinking.
“I never had any resentment of what happened at the Memorial. COVID-19 is here, and we have to deal with it. I’m just thankful that no one in my party died after two relatives had died.”
Torrey Pines will always be a special place for Rahm, a 26-year-old from Barrik, Spain., who was a 10-to-1 favorite entering the tournament. He proposed to his wife-to-be on the cliffs adjacent the course and won his first PGA Tour title in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open when he made a 60-foot putt for eagle 3 on the final hole.
“I love Torrey Pines,” Rahm said, “and Torrey Pines loves me.”
Oosthuizen started the day tied for the lead with Russell Henley and survived back-nine debacles that struck many contenders, most of whom had won major championships. Oosthuizen lost any reasonable chance of winning his second major championship title when he hooked his drive into a hazard and made bogey 5 at the 17th hole.
Oosthuizen hit his drive into the rough at No. 18, preventing the South African /from going for the green that’s fronted by a pond. He laid up to 69 yards, but his sand wedge shot stopped 10 feet above the cup. He made the putt for birdie and 71-279, one shot too many. He remains the only player to finish second in all four major championships with only one victory (2010 Open Championship).
“I didn’t win it,” said Oosthuizen, who now has second runner-up finishes in majors0. “I’m second again. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. Winning a major championship is not just going to happen. I played good today, but I didn’t play good enough.”
Harris English, an entry in this week’s Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, birdied the final hole for 68-281, which was one better than Guido Migliozzo (68), Collin Morikawa (70) and two-time champion Brooks Koepka (69), who also will be at TPC River Highlands.
Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau began the day two strokes back but birdied the fifth hole and then hit his tee shot on the par-3 eighth that stopped two inches from the cup for a one-shot lead over three players. Oosthuizen. tied DeChambeau at 5 under with a 12-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole, but they had only a one-stroke lead over five players.
DeChambeau fell a stroke behind when he bogeyed the 11th hole, ending a streak of 31 consecutive holes of par or better, and moments later, Oosthuizen made an 18-foot birdie putt at No. 10 for a two-stroke lead.
DeChambeau’s chance of a repeat began to unravel when he made a mess of the par-5 13th hole, where he hit two shots into the rough and then skulled his third from a bunker over the green en route to 7. But he wasn’t alone as Morikawa, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey also made double bogeys, Matthew Wolff bogeyed five of six holes around the turn and Koepka bogeyed two of the last three holes.
DeChambeau totally imploded with a quadruple-bogey 8 on the 17th hole in a closing 77 for 287 and a tie for 26th place before heading to the Travelers Championship.
“I didn’t get off the rails at all,” DeChambeau said. “It’s golf. People will say I did this or did that, and it’s just golf. I’ve had plenty of times where I hit it way worse than today and I won. It’s just one of those things where I didn’t have the right breaks happen at the right time.”
Dustin Johnson, who fell from No. 1 to No. 2 in the rankings and will try to join recent PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson as the only back-to-back Travelers Championship titlists, never challenged on Sunday while shooting 74 to tie for 19th at 286.
Mickelson, trying to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, wasn’t a factor in his hometown, closing with 75 for 295 and a tie for 62nd. But in a typically classy gesture, Mickelson sat with Rahm’s wife and son as Ooshuizen was playing the 18th hole and Jon was hitting balls on the practice range in case of a playoff that wasn’t needed. Mickelson, who won the Travelers when it was known as the Canon Greater Hartford Open (2001-02), is returning to Cromwell a year after he led after two rounds before finishing T-26.
The 2022 U.S. Open will be held at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. June 13-19 and tickets are available online at https://www.usopen.com/2022-u-s–open-ticket-packages0.html