Rahm revives the reign of Spain at Masters

Jon Rahm celebrates winning the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Sunday, April 9 2023, in Augusta, GA.(Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Jon Rahm celebrates winning the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Sunday, April 9 2023, in Augusta, GA.(Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

AUGUSTA – The voice of Spain’s first great Masters champion had whispered in Jon Rahm’s ear at the start of this Masters, when he needed it most.

Rahm’s victory here was so solid, so undeniable – where even great trees fell in the storm this week, he was unmoved, committing just one bogey in his final round – that it’s easy to forget the tremors at the beginning. One-two-three-four putts on the first green Thursday. A double-bogey 6.

Instead of going straight to a low boil – and Rahm has been known to be an induction cooktop in cleats – he thought back instead to the immortal words of the late Seve Ballesteros when asked to describe a four-putt of his own in 1990:

“I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” Rahm had no choice but to smile inside and starve his anger of fuel.

There at the other end Sunday, while Rahm was overcoming a 4-stroke deficit at the beginning of the day to win going away by 4 with a final-round 69, the fellow who began the large and growing chapter of Iberian Masters champions was in his head again.

“The support was pretty incredible all throughout, and I kept hearing, ‘Seve! Seve! Seve! Do it for Seve!’” Rahm said afterward. “I heard that the entire back nine. That might have been the hardest thing to control today, the emotion of knowing what it could be if I were to win. That might have been the hardest thing.”

Rahm, 2021 U.S. Open champion, became the fourth Spaniard to win the Masters, a direct golfing descendant of Ballesteros (winner in 1980 and ‘83), José María Olazábal (1994, ‘99) and Sergio Garcia (2017). With an expansive personality and a game capable of explosive swings of fortune, he also is the one who most closely resembles Ballesteros in terms of raw charisma. Rahm is destined to join the ranks of the Masters most popular champions.

There was a kind of cosmic inevitability to Rahm’s victory, falling as it did on both on Ballesteros’ birthday and on the 40th anniversary of his second championship here.

Winning the Masters, the 28-year-old Rahm reasons, is but a rite of passage for everyone from his part of the world with big swings and bigger ambitions. “Pretty much every great-name Spanish player has won here,” he said. “There’s got to be something here about having a Spanish passport. I don’t know, there’s something about the grounds that transmits into all of us.”

The kid who teethed on the legend of Ballesteros captaining the 1997 Ryder Cup team to victory in Spain has arrived.

Maybe it wasn’t quite as easy as it looked at the end. Not supposed to be. Sunday was a day of golf so long I swear you could watch Rahm’s beard grow.

When the field reported at 8:30 in the morning for the restart of the rain-delayed third round, Rahm faced a walk of 29 holes, two trips through the gristmill of Amen Corner, more tension than in a whole day of binge watching “Breaking Bad.”

He’d be paired all the way with the midway leader Brooks Koepka, the four-time major champion who was rediscovering his strut. It had all the makings of match play between titans. Picture two dudes in inflatable sumo suits bumping up against each other for almost 11 hours. A classic all-day battle.

But it was only Rahm who was up for a marathon of golf.

You didn’t really think the Masters would allow anyone, even someone of Koepka’s pedigree, to assume a big lead early and run away and hide?

Want some dramatic tension on your Easter? A Masters Sunday almost always obliges. Koepka slept Saturday night on an 11-foot par-saving putt on No. 7 awaiting him when his third round resumed the next morning. While visions of a 9-foot birdie opportunity danced in Rahm’s head. Sure enough at the restart Sunday, the former missed, the latter made, and the four-stroke Koepka lead was halved as quickly as a butcher splits a rack of ribs. Let the intrigue commence.

It was as if Koepka, the majordomo of the majors with four of them in hand, had forgotten how to score this day. He’d record one birdie on his first full hole of Sunday – the eighth hole of his third round – and not get another for 23 holes. His lead took on a slow bleed.

The easy joke would be that after skipping to the LIV league where they only play 54 holes, he thought it was over here before having to come back in the afternoon to play a fourth round.

At least when he returns to work on LIV in two weeks, Koepka can find all the therapy he needs to deal with a Masters collapse. For who’s more expert in that field than LIV commissioner and CEO Greg Norman?

A fourth round is required here, and when it began, Rahm (9 under) was two back of Koepka. By the par-3 sixth, following a Koepka bogey, Rahm had the lead for good. By his reckoning, he nailed down the win by the 14th hole with a 136-yard, 8 iron second shot that landed 4 feet from a birdie. With that he had a 4 shot lead to massage to the end.

It was a comfortable conclusion for the champion. Rahm could snap off an ugly drive on No. 18 – hit a provisional that he wouldn’t require – and still rescue a par that left him 12 under for the tournament. Even that moment possessed a certain amount of bravado reminiscent of a certain Spanish champion. “To finish it off the way that I did – an unusual par, very much a Seve par – it was, in a non-purposeful way, a testament to him,” Rahm said.

Beyond the personal and ethnic accomplishments, don’t overlook the larger political value this win had in the golf world. Rahm single-handedly boxed out a small handful of LIV players intent on staging a hostile takeover of this major. In addition to Koepka, LIV-ers Phil Mickelson (who shot a fourth-round low 65 to finish 8 under) and Patrick Reed (7 under) made significant Sunday moves.

Fortunately Rahm’s got both the game and broad backside for the job.

There was much to applaud about this victory, in this world and the next.

“I know (Ballesteros) was pulling for me today. It was a great Sunday,” Rahm said.