September 27, 2020

Jon Rahm’s Two New Attributes: Composure and a Top Ranking

DUBLIN, Ohio — Sometimes a reputation is hard to shake. Just ask Jon Rahm, who for years was best known as a good golfer with a bad temper. But on Sunday evening, Rahm became renowned for being something else: the world’s new No. 1 ranked golfer.

Rahm’s fits of pique on the PGA Tour were the stuff of legend when he turned pro four years ago after a decorated amateur career, with clubs kicked and thrown, a tee marker punched and a bunker rake irately flung over one shoulder. And that was the scene from just one round in 2017.

Rahm apologized, although he never vowed to become stoic in the face of failure. The fury and disgust he sometimes felt was a necessary response, he said, even a catalyst that simply had to be channeled more productively — and less publicly. He called reining in his impulses a process.

The tantrums have been at a minimum lately, or reduced to brief moments of obvious exasperation, and in the past 18 months Rahm, 25, has climbed up the world rankings with 18 top-10 finishes. On Sunday, with a decisive, three-shot victory at the Memorial Tournament, Rahm vaulted into the top-ranked spot, supplanting Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy.

With his fourth PGA Tour victory, Rahm becomes the 24th player in history be to ranked No. 1 and just the second Spaniard, as he joins Seve Ballesteros, a boyhood hero of Rahm’s who died in 2011.

“Being a part of golf history with Seve, in any way, is unbelievable,” Rahm, who shot a 75 on Sunday to finish nine-under-par for the tournament, said afterward. “It’s a pretty unique feeling I’m going to enjoy for a while.”

Of his work to regulate his on-the-course outbursts, Rahm said, “I’m just trying to be like me.”

Rahm weathered a two-stroke penalty on the 16th hole on Sunday for causing his ball to move slightly before a shot. After beginning the final round four shots ahead of Tony Finau and Ryan Palmer, Rahm had grown his lead to eight strokes. But bogies on the 10th and 14th holes, and a double bogey on the 11th hole, had whittled Rahm’s lead over Palmer to three strokes.

ImageJon Rahm celebrated on the 16th green at the Memorial Tournament on Sunday. Rahm took a two-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move slightly before chipping onto the green but held onto his lead.
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Then, Rahm flew his tee shot over the par-3 16th green and into deep rough 31 feet from the hole. Rahm opened his wedge behind the ball and deftly pitched it just onto the putting surface, where it rolled into the hole for an apparent birdie that increased his lead over Palmer to four strokes, an edge that climbed to five strokes one hole later. However, video replays of Rahm placing his wedge behind his ball in the deep grass before his chip shot seemed to show the ball moving slightly. PGA Tour officials later assessed a two-stroke penalty, turning the birdie into a bogey.

After his round, and before learning of the two-stroke penalty, Rahm described his holed chip shot as “the best short game shot I’ve ever hit.” After meeting with rules officials, Rahm said the video he viewed showed a slight oscillation of the ball in the grass.

“It barely moves at all,” said Rahm, who added that when he was standing over the ball he did not see it move. “But the rules of golf are clear. I accept the penalty. And it proves you have to fight to the end.”

Coming off the final green at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, Rahm was greeted by the tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who has made it a tradition to shake hands with the Memorial winner as soon as the competition has ended. Nicklaus and Rahm instead bumped fists, a gesture that carried more import than usual, because earlier on Sunday Nicklaus revealed in a television interview that he and his wife, Barbara, tested positive for the coronavirus in March.

Nicklaus said that Barbara had been asymptomatic and that he had been ill briefly but recovered quickly. The Nicklauses are both 80 years old.

Rahm, meanwhile, was being complimented by his peers — for his golf skill and for finding a way to control the rage that had consumed him in the past.

“Jon Rahm is a remarkable talent,” said Phil Mickelson, who added that there was no weak part of Rahm’s game. “And he knows himself. He knows that to relax sometimes he has to let some of his anger out. He can’t hold that in.”

Mickelson added: “It allows him to be at his best. That’s a big thing, too, identifying your own self. He’s done a great job of that at a really young age.”

Palmer, who shot 74 on Sunday, finished second. No other golfer made a serious run at the lead on a day with difficult, United States Open-like scoring conditions. Several days with temperatures in the 90s dried out the already challenging Muirfield Village greens, and swirling winds sent many approach shots into vexing greenside bunkers.

Tiger Woods, playing in his first PGA Tour event since mid-February, concluded his final round hours before the tournament leaders finished. Woods’s chance of contending ended on Friday when his surgically repaired back was so stiff it significantly inhibited his swing and caused Woods to shoot 76.

He rebounded with a round of 71 on Saturday, but slumped on Sunday with another 76 to finish six-over-par for the tournament. Throughout the event, Woods’s putting was subpar, and Sunday, when he had 32 putts, was his worst day of the event. But with his back not restricting him in the final round, Woods nonetheless left Muirfield Village feeling encouraged by his performance after a five-month PGA Tour layoff.

“It was nice to get my feet wet and compete and play again,” Woods said. “I need to work on my putting a bit and clean that up. But as far as my swing, it felt good. Over all for my first week back, it was a lot of positives.”

But golf fans should not expect to see Woods on tour again until the P.G.A. Championship takes place Aug. 6 to 9 at T.P.C. Harding Park in San Francisco. Asked if he thought he would play in a tournament before the first week of August, Woods smiled and suggested that he needed many more practice rounds but not necessarily competitive ones.