AUGUSTA — Jon Rahm had just left the 18th green when the singing started.
The sun was dipping low in the sky and the shadows were getting long, but the newly-minted Masters champion was lingering on the green, about to make his way through a corridor of patrons on his way to scoring. He embraced his wife, Kelley, then lifted his son, Kepa, onto his hip, still soaking everything in. Jose Maria Olazabal, his friend and mentor, embraced him. Each man was trying to hold back tears.
Somewhere deep in the crowd, a small group of Europeans began to serenade him. A few seconds later, it felt like everyone at Augusta was joining them.
“Olé, Olé, Olé! Olé! Olé!”
It’s hard to pin down the disparate motivations of the people who make up a large crowd. Some, certainly, were applauding Rahm’s historic performance. Others, most likely, felt a connection to a man who has never been shy about sharing his emotions. There were also those who weren’t shy about the fact that they’d been pulling for Rahm all day simply because he was not Brooks Koepka, not a member of LIV Golf. But in the end, the reasons for their support didn’t matter, only the outcome. As Rahm made his way toward the clubhouse, the singing intensified.
“Olé, Olé, Olé! Olé! Olé!”
The 28-year-old kept looking up at the sky and smiling. He was thinking about a lot of things, about the dreams he had as a little boy of winning the Masters, but also about Seve Ballesteros and the other Spanish golfers who forged a path for him to get to this moment. It was Ballesteros’ birthday
“I never thought I was going to cry by winning a golf tournament, but I got very close on that 18th hole,” Rahm said. “This one was for Seve. He was up there helping, and I know he did.”
It was easy at the beginning of the week to view the 2023 Masters as a referendum on the viability of whether or not LIV Golf’s credibility was growing or fading. Players were asked about it repeatedly during the pre-tournament build-up. Augusta National subtly let its distaste be known by sidelining LIV Golfers from early-week press conferences, with the exception of Cam Smith, the reigning Open champion. Greg Norman, the commissioner of LIV, countered by complaining he hadn’t been invited to the Masters, then suggested that if a LIV member were to win the tournament, all 18 LIV players in attendance might storm the green in celebration.
It felt like the Masters had been pulled, unwillingly, into the messy debate, one that will likely rage for years to come. But by the time the actual golf started, the LIV discussion seemed less important than the history at stake. That’s the power of the Masters. Tiger Woods mentioned on Tuesday that the joy he feels when he’s on property now is different from what he felt back in 1997, but fulfilling in different ways. He gets to spend time with his son and his friends, sharing old memories. He seemed almost wistful as he said it. “So much of my life has been here at Augusta National,” Woods said. “I don’t know how many of these I have left. So I just want to be able to appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories.”
Even Phil Mickelson, the man at the center of the fracture, felt the aura of Augusta when he showed up, a year after missing the tournament for the first time in 2022.
“If you love golf, when you come here, it's more of a spiritual experience, where you feel this appreciation for this great game and the gratitude that you have,” Mickelson said. “I thought it was exciting that this tournament rose above it all to have the best players in the world here and lost all the pettiness; that was great.”
There was also no shortage of storylines outside squabbles between the PGA Tour and LIV. The new tee on the 13th hole had a turn in the spotlight. That inevitably spurred talk that if Augusta has to spend upwards of $30 million to maintain the design integrity of its most iconic hole, there are changes coming to the sport, likely in the name of bifurcation.
“Generally we have always been supportive of the governing bodies,” said Masters chairman Fred Ridley. “I've stated that we believe distance needs to be addressed. I think the natural conclusion is, yes, we will be supportive.”
Rory McIlroy endured yet another exhausting build-up to the Masters, endless questions about whether he could finally capture the career grand slam, only to get bounced from the tournament after two rounds for the second time in three years. (63-year-old Fred Couples bested him by four shots in becoming the oldest player ever to make the cut.) Scottie Scheffler seemed poised to defend his title, the first man to do so since Woods in 2000 and 2001, but his putting abandoned him early in the week, and he never climbed into contention despite leading the field with 76 percent of his greens hit. His most memorable moment came when cameras caught him having an animated, seemingly heated exchange with his putting coach on the practice green on Wednesday.
By the time the weekend arrived, the Masters felt like a two-man race. Despite four-putting the first hole of the tournament, Rahm opened 65-69, a score bested only by Koepka, who opened 65-67.
“If you're going to make a double or four-putt or anything, it might as well be the first hole, 71 holes to make it up,” Rahm said. After the tournament, he couldn’t resist giving his friend Zach Ertz, a tight end for the Arizona Cardinals, considerable grief. Ertz had texted Rahm Thursday morning, ten minutes before his tee time, mentioning that the first hole looked like a “walk in the park.”
“Thank you Zach,” Rahm said. “Don’t ever do that again, please.”
As patient as Rahm was, a rejuvenated and motivated Koepka entered the final round with a two-shot lead and a chance to win his fifth major, something that no one saw coming 18 months ago when he seemed adrift and lost, unable to swing with the kind of freedom that helped him rise to become the No. 1 player in the world. One of the reasons he said he agreed to participate in Netflix’s documentary, Full Swing, is because he wanted people to see another side of him. He felt vulnerable and broken, but as his health returned, so did his internal fire. He’d chosen LIV in part because his career felt in jeopardy and while he remained happy with that decision, he did miss aspects of his old life.
“Competitively you miss playing against them, right?” Koepka said. “Because you want Rory to play his best and Scottie to play his best and Jon to play his best and go toe-to-toe with them. I do miss that, and that's one thing that I do miss, and that's what I think makes these majors so cool.”
For two and half days, Koepka hit the kind of towering, breathtaking drives that reminded you of the man he used to be. His irons were surgical, his putting was artful.
“I've known this for a while, but I guess it was just a matter of going out and doing it,” Koepka said.
Rahm, fighting through the worst of the weather, could barely stay within striking distance. When play was called on Saturday due to a deluge of rain, Koepka had stretched his lead to four shots. Rahm sensed he needed to increase the pressure, lest they start fitting Koepka for a green jacket on Saturday night.
“I wasn't expecting Brooks to play bad,” Rahm said. “I can't expect that, right? So I need to bring the fight to him.”
Slowly Rahm began to chip away. He cut the lead to two by the end of the third round but was furious with himself that it wasn’t closer. A bad 3-putt bogey on 13, a three-putt par on 15 and a lazy iron into 16 that led to another bogey had him seething.
“That's the only time I ever felt like, you know, I was truly upset at something,” Rahm said.
But Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, made him promise something before they tee off in the final round. No half measures for the rest of the day.
“I told him I needed 100 percent commitment on every shot,” Hayes said. “I know when he does that, he’s really hard to beat.”
It would be (somewhat) unfair to suggest that Koepka suffered a Norman-esque collapse on Sunday. But he continued his troubling pattern of looking shaky when trying to close out a major, one that now has scar tissue earned from Harding Park, Pebble Beach, Portrush and Kiawah. His opening tee shot in the final round felt like an indicator that it was not going to be easy. He yanked it so far left, it actually missed the pine trees that frame No. 1 and came to rest in the 9th fairway. Koepka marched to his ball and, remarkably, ripped a high draw over the tree line that somehow found the green, but everything from that moment felt like he was battling internal demons in addition to battling Rahm.
It did not help that Koepka, a refreshingly fast player, felt like he found himself waiting on the group ahead (Patrick Cantlay and Viktor Hovland) every time he stood over the ball.
“The group in front of us was brutally slow,” Koepka said. “Jon went to the bathroom like seven times during the round, and we were still waiting.”
There are statistical models that do a decent job of explaining how good Rahm has been over the last two years. (On Thursday, for example, he gained a ridiculous 8.12 strokes tee to green, shooting 65 despite losing half a shot on the green to the field.) But perhaps more telling is the feeling he inspires out there. Max Homa put it succinctly at the Genesis Invitational early in the year when he compared Rahm to Thanos, the villain in the Avenger movies. He overwhelms you until his victory feels inevitable. When he made a birdie on No. 3 to cut Koepka’s lead to one, you could feel a shift in the air.
“I think that birdie let us take a deep breath,” Hayes said.
Rahm could sense Koepka was getting uncomfortable, particularly now that he had the tee. He wanted to give Koepka something to look at on every shot, something he had to chase. It was a strategy that helped him with his own nerves.
“I might have looked calm, but I was definitely, definitely nervous out there,” Rahm said. “I'm glad that's the way it looked. That's what you strive for, right? You don't want to panic, and I never panicked. I felt comfortable with my game, and I had a plan to execute, and that's all I can do.”
When Koepka made bogeys on No. 4 and No. 6, it was a tie ballgame, but it felt like Rahm had already grabbed the lead. Koepka was reeling, particularly off the tee. On the 8th hole, he pull-hooked a drive well left, the ball clattering around in the woods for what felt like a lifetime before it came to rest between a bush and a tree. Koepka punched out and was able to salvage a par, but when Rahm hit his third shot to a foot for a tap-in birdie, Koepka could sense things slipping away.
“I felt like that's kind of where the momentum shifted right there,” Koepka said.
It was around the 9th green that both Rahm and Koepka realized that a new contender had entered the arena, and it was none other than Mickelson. The 52-year-old was standing over a birdie putt on 18 as they were making their way to the 10th tee, having each just bogeyed the ninth hole, and when Mickelson buried it with an emphatic fist pump to get to 8-under par, suddenly it no longer felt like match-play.
“There was tension out there,” Rahm said.
Mickelson had thrown a final round 65 at them, making eight birdies on his way to a T-2 finish.
“Unfortunately it wasn't enough, but it was really a lot of fun for me to play at this level again,” Mickelson said.
Rahm, however, didn’t let it faze him. A golf junkie at heart, he’d watched nearly every final round of the Masters available on YouTube and he knew the danger that lurked on No. 12. Early in the week, he’d had a conversation with Tony Finau during a practice round about the 2019 Masters, when Tiger Woods found the green when everyone else in contention found the water. He wanted to know from Finau: Did he feel like he’d hit a good shot into 12 that day?
"Tony said ‘It was a good shot, it was just a yard too far right and spun in the water,’ ” Rahm said. “Then he mentioned Tiger's shot went left of the bunker to that Sunday pin. So when I got there today, dry land is mission No. 1, right? … That's what I had to do, hit it right over the center of the bunker and hope it hits green. And then after that, hit a great lag putt, tapped it in and moved on.”
Rahm had one last thunderbolt to throw at Koepka on the fourteenth hole. His drive found the first cut on the right side of the hole, but he hit a beautiful fade toward a funnel pin that trickled down the slope like a raindrop in slow motion. A birdie gave him a five-stroke lead over Koepka and a four-stroke lead over Mickelson.
“If there was a key moment throughout the day, it was that shot,” Rahm said. “I used an 8-iron. It started around the left edge of the green, and all it had to do was fade about five yards and it would reach the slope.”
When Rahm’s drive on 18 hit a tree branch on the left and came down short of the fairway, it did inspire one final moment of levity between him and Hayes, even though Rahm was leading by four. After Rahm laid up with a 4-iron, he was standing over his ball when Hayes gave him one final directive.
“Would you get this ball up and down like a proper champion?” Hayes said.
“You read my mind,” Rahm replied.
When Rahm wedged it close, a wave of relief began to wash over him. He was about to win the Masters.
“This one was for Seve,” Rahm 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.”
Mickelson hung around long after it was clear Rahm was going to win so he could offer a hug of congratulations. It was another sign that some feuds won’t take precedence over personal relationships.
“It's hard not to pull for Jon,” Mickelson said. “He's such a good guy. He has such a great heart and treats people so well. I think the world of him as a person. And as a player, that's obvious, how good he is.”
There will be plenty of time, in the coming years and months, to debate just how good Rahm might potentially be. He is the first European to win both the Masters and the U.S. Open, a statistic that stunned him when he heard it in his post-round press conference.
“I find that hard to believe,” Rahm said. “I still can’t believe I’m the first.”
Hayes thinks this is just the beginning. There will be more majors in Rahm’s future. In fact, his caddie made the boldest of predictions as the sun was setting in Georgia.
“I’m never going to say he’s going to catch Tiger,” Hayes said. “Those days are gone. But I could see him winning double-digit majors.”
Ten majors seems like a preposterous number. Only four men have accomplished it: Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. We probably shouldn’t get carried away, at least not yet.
But with Rahm, it’s easy to slip into hyperbole. He has a way of making his dominance feel, you might say, inevitable.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org