Saturday could not have been a more stunner of a day here at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. I’ve tried to make it a point to follow Jon Rahm whenever I get a chance to, but to date, have not been able to do it for for more than a few hole stretch. In the small samples I’ve seen, the reviews were mixed. The golf game is absolutely massive and evident to anyone that watches him hit a ball. But the attitude and demeanor, which has been well documented at this point, has left me a bit (perhaps unjustifiably) apprehensive.
Rahm is young, brash, and carries himself with a certain swagger that just draws you in. He’s also quick on the trigger with a club throw or two, a putter slam on the turf (like earlier this week), and the tendency to put the guy in charge of the bleep button to work. For the most part, this stuff is understandable, especially for a young guy who has likely not reached peak maturity. What turned me off was him getting visibly pissed and flustered by rather minor incidents from fans. He could’t refocus, and his game reflected it. Everyone gets mad at themselves for bad shots, but this was different, and felt off.
By any definition, Rahm is an absolute superstar. At minimum, he’s currently one of the ten best players in the world, and you could make the case that he’s one of the best five. He’s also got a personality that could really help him translate into being one of the more interesting players to follow, and he’s a guy you’re just drawn to when you see him on the grounds. So I set out to stalk him for 18, and walked away thoroughly impressed.
The vibes are strong on this Saturday. The #C-Suite folks just looking to get a few days off work on a workday are back in Dublin, and the locals are out in droves to soak up the Irish Summer (which is today only). The dunes on the front nine can give you some good viewing points, but the grass is thick, itchy, and in many places very steep. Behind the third green, there’s people trying to climb to a good spot, and the crowd cheers them on as they try to make their way up. Guy after guy starts to tumble to a raucous applause and laughter from those already seated. I love this place.
The setting is phenomenal! The first eight holes at Portstewart are fantastic links holes, and while the back nine gets a bit quirky, you won’t see a better use of huge dunes than you do in that opening stretch. In the sun it looks even better, and it looks entirely different than what we’ve seen the last two days.
Astounding scenes out here. Dunes. Green grass. Sunshine. Gentle breeze. All in. pic.twitter.com/7LtchbX1Vl
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) July 8, 2017
Links golf is a passion of mine, and watching these world beaters translate their games to play these courses always fascinates me. More than a typical PGA Tour course in the states, positioning seems to be so critical to scoring well at a links course like Portstewart. When greens are softer, bunkers less penal, and rough near the green to stop your ball like you’ll see at many stateside courses, the punishment for your misses can (at times) be much less severe than on this side of the pond. However, the conditions this week have been benign, and the scoring is low. But it still remains that even getting out of position for one shot can lead to a bogey, and there’s plenty of places around Portstewart where you can trip yourself up.
Throughout Rahm’s 67 on Saturday, he was only out of position less than a handful of times. He bombs it, and while he may appear to be a bit out of control at times on television, it never once felt that way today. He talked through every shot with his caddie, Adam Hayes, and played almost mistake free golf. To give you an idea of how well he managed his golf ball, here’s a brief play by play of the places he left himself and the traps he avoided. (Ok, I tried to be brief, it’s not that brief).
On the first hole, he plays ten feet right of a left hole location on the first, and easily rolls in the birdie. An easy one, but perfectly played.
His iron off the tee went too long on the par-4 second, but he wedged past a pin that if you’re short of it, it’s rolling back to your feet. With a wedge in his hand, he could have been tempted to fire at the flag, but played it wisely and carded a four.
The par-3 third had a sucker pin in the front, right over a bunker. He flew it right over the flag, playing away from the trouble. Easy par.
The first time he’s out of position is the 4th, where his driver goes left. His punch out to the fairway actually goes too far route, but he leaves himself the proper angle to a back left flag. He plays perfectly 15 feet right of it. Portstewart is infamous for putting pins in places where it looks like you can’t even fit a hole location, and he doesn’t fall into the trap.
After a perfect drive on 5, he throws a dart into back hole location. He misses a putt that couldn’t have been been more than six feet, but remained perfectly calm. It helps that he’s within a shot of the lead at this point, but he seems way more in control of his emotions than I’ve seen in the past.
On 6, he takes on a left pin in a left to right wind. Finishes it perfectly online but short, which is good, because long is not an option. It’s a much more impressive shot than the result may show, because the wind is starting to whip now. An easy part on a treacherous little three.
Before they get to the 7th tee, he’s talking about what they learned here yesterday on what line to take. With the wind helping, they pick out a tv tower not even remotely close to how the hole was designed to be played. He couldn’t have had more than 8 iron in. Back left pin, wind coming hard right to left, he leaves it out right with perfect perfect distance control, and leaves 20 feet for eagle. An effortless two putt birdie moves him to two under for the day.
This is seven straight holes where he has left himself in the ideal spot in regulation. He was so steady that it actually felt a bit boring at times.
The 8th is where he makes his most severe mistake (and it isn’t even that bad). He takes too much club off the tee, runs through he fairway and into the deep stuff. Badly out of position, he pitches up short and into the right spot, but it’s a tough up and down and he makes his only bogey of the day.
After cranking a driver on nine and pitching up to around 15 feet, two cell phones go off in the backswing of his putt. Visibly disgusted he tells the patrons to “put your phone on silent.” He taps in, stares down the fan and after the applause dies down. “Two of them right in my backswing,” he says directly towards the front row. This is hardly an outburst, and the reaction is completely justified. The European Tour has implemented a new cell phone policy this week where you’re allowed to use your phone at all times, as long as it’s on silent. Overall it’s been close a non-issue so far, but I expect this to be met with some criticism.
After a boring par at ten, he goes to the whip. Hits a perfect drive on 11 and his approach goes just past flag. Again, with a huge drop off in the front, he’s put it in the best possible position, and he rolls in the birdie to get to -14.
He takes on the pin on the left on 12 with left to right wind. The tee on this hole is significantly elevated, meaning his ball is going to have to fight this wind for an extended period of time. He drills it in between the bunkers on the left and pin. Just a superb shot, and he makes it count by rolling in the birdie. Now he’s on to back-to-back par-5’s.
The drive on 13 was something to behold. Playing downwind, he lifted one up into the stratosphere that looked like a space shuttle rocket detachment. It looked like it would start to fall towards the Earth, but it just kept rising like a phoenix. With the pin all the way on the left, he plays perfectly to the right side with his second. He barely misses the eagle, but taps in for his third straight birdie. Giddy up!
He gets a bit too excited about the helping wind on the 14th and sprays one way left (full sauce point). Out of position. After a bad second shot out of the heather to the right, he knows he’s made another mistake. He can’t even see where it landed, but says to himself “that’s no good there.” I’m kind of amazed that a kid that couldn’t speak English as of five years ago talks to himself in English. He goes on to get it up and down anyways and lands a giant fist pump as the crowd gets as loud as they’ve been all day.
On the par-3 15th, he gets aggressive and goes just long into the wind. Another cell phone goes off before his chip, and all I hear in my head is Verne Lundquist saying “and here comes the putter throw! Wait! He’s restrained himself. Perhaps this is a new Happy Gilmore.” He walks the par putt in.
He finishes with three more routine pars and walks off with an impressive 67. Prodigious off the tee, pure with the irons, sound with his approach, and pure with the putter is a pretty deadly combination. The talent was never a question. One round that ends with him at the top of the leaderboard doesn’t answer every question about his temper, but it was good to see him dialed in and riding the bull. I’m still all in!