AUSTIN, Texas – The newest edition of the Spanish Armada has cut a swath through the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play field on a path toward the ultimate competitive treasure.
Jon Rahm continued to defy his first-year player status with a sporty 7-and-5 victory over Soren Kjeldsen. That walk-over followed similar routs of Charles Howell III (6 and 4), Sergio Garcia (6 and 4), Shane Lowry (2 and 1) and Kevin Chappell (3 and 2) this week.
By any definition, the Spaniard has been dominant – think Seve Ballesteros without the magician’s ability to recover because there’s no need to scramble from where Rahm hits the ball.
For the week, Rahm is fourth in driving distance and driving accuracy, first in proximity to the hole and scrambling and second in strokes gained-putting. That’s called the Grand Slam of ShotLink.
Tim Mickelson, the brother of Phil who was Rahm’s coach at Arizona State and is now his manager, said there’s really no part of his game that stands out, “Because he’s above average at everything,” Mickelson said.
Those left in Rahm’s wake this week would agree.
Rahm played 27 holes on Saturday in 11 under without a bogey, he never trailed, never saw anything beyond the 15th tee and never once looked like a 22-year-old playing his first Match Play.
“The only thing I could have done better is maybe make that putt on [No.] 11 and that's about it,” said Rahm in reference to a missed 9-footer for birdie at the par 3. “There are not many rounds of golf where a player looks back and says I cannot play any better and today was one of those. Last time I said that was Torrey Pines.”
At Torrey Pines, just his fifth start as a PGA Tour member, Rahm closed with a 65 to win by three strokes, over Howell no less, and he hasn’t looked back, finishing tied for fifth at Pebble Beach and then third at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Earlier this year, Mickelson spoke of a friendly match against Rahm at Whisper Rock Golf Club, a 4-and-3 loss despite Lefty posting a “nice, solid” 66.
“Let’s just say, I will only be his partner from now on,” Mickelson laughed at the time. “I haven’t been able to beat him.”
So instead, Rahm will face Haas in the semifinals early Sunday.
“I was making birdies but Jon Rahm has been making tons of birdies,” Haas joked. “Hopefully we both continue to do that and it will be an unbelievable match. Hopefully he eats some gas station sushi tonight and maybe he's sick tomorrow.”
Gas station sushi may be the only thing standing between Rahm and a showdown with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who is on an equally impressive path to his third consecutive victory and the World Golf Championships slam following a 3-and-2 triumph in the quarterfinals over Alex Noren.
Johnson will have to beat Hideto Tanihara early Sunday – that’s taw-nih-HAR-uh, the 38-year-old from Japan whose competitive claim to fame is a tie for fifth at the 2006 Open Championship. In other words, those who penciled in a DJ vs. Rahm final in their Match Play brackets are probably sleeping easy tonight.
In many ways it would be something of a coronation for Rahm, who has ascended quickly to world-beater status, at least within select golf circles.
Since winning the Famers Insurance Open in January, Rahm has become an increasingly popular pick for first-time major champion, which is something of a surprise considering he’s only played two Grand Slam events in his career.
“I've said earlier, I think he's one of the 10 best players in the world,” Phil Mickelson said. “He continues to validate that with some incredible play. He's a real threat.”
But it’s beyond the statistics and mechanics of an abbreviated backswing and cupped left wrist that makes Rahm such an interesting study.
He’s grounded beyond his 22 years to the point that after being asked how he prepares to play, he bypassed the normal routine of gym/range/putting green and launched into a telling glimpse into what makes the game’s newest star tick.
“I do a lot of work on my life outside golf. Because I'm a believer the better my life is outside my golf environment, family, friends, anything, the better I'm going to be able to play golf,” he said. “That's where I do a lot of work. And it's getting mentally ready and not getting hung up in wanting to win. Every day waking up motivated to practice hard and be aware that if I play good I'm going to have a chance.”
Rahm did concede that he’s “amazed” to be in this situation with just a marathon Sunday and the world’s best player standing between himself and his first World Golf Championships victory.
It was an interesting choice of words because amazing is really the only way to describe Rahm’s ascent up the professional ranks.