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Top breakthroughs of 2021: Majors for Jon Rahm, Nelly Korda; Japan shines

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It’s never too early to start winning – and it’s never too late, either.

As this year taught us once more, it’s not just the prolific winners each season in golf that get us talking; it’s also the breakthroughs, both expected and unexpected.

It’s the star players who win their first majors.

It’s the journeymen who, after years of failures and close calls, finally get into the win column.

It’s any kind of first, from a college program nabbing its school’s maiden NCAA crown to an entire country celebrating not one but a handful of crowning achievements.

We might not have gotten Bryson DeChambeau driving the sixth green during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, but we did get a hearty helping of breakthroughs. These are the ones that we’ll remember from this year:

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Jon Rahm finally wins a major

Rahm might’ve won only once this calendar year, but it was an important victory.

For years, many wondered if Rahm had the temperament to win golf’s biggest tournaments. How else could one explain Rahm owning more than twice as many worldwide wins (12) as major top-10s (five) as a pro entering this year.

But after becoming a father in April, Rahm, at age 26, finally answered the major question, delivering a watershed performance at Torrey Pines and capturing the U.S. Open, his first major crown.

“I vowed to myself to be a better role model for my son,” Rahm said shortly after winning. “He won’t remember any of this because he’s only 10 weeks old, but I do. Hopefully in the future, he can grow up to be someone who’s proud of his dad. I hope I can provide that example.”

Rahm also continues to build his case as the world’s best player. He’ll enter the new year as the top-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking, an achievement he reached not by winning at a prolific rate this year but by consistently contending in the biggest events – 13 worldwide top-10s in 2021, including four in majors, three in playoff events and a T-9 at The Players.

“He’s got a great game and a lot of heart,” Phil Mickelson said at Torrey, “and I think he’ll actually elevate even higher than what we saw today.”

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Nelly Korda gets her major, world No. 1

As Korda’s stature in the women’s game continued to grow, so, too, did the pressure of joining the club of major winners. After missing the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open, where she was one of the favorites, Korda returned home for what her dad, Petr, described as a “boot camp,” where young Nelly rededicated herself to her craft.

It paid off three weeks later at the KPGA Women’s PGA, where the 22-year-old, in her 26th major start, hoisted her first major title.

“I’ve put in a lot of work and to finally get a win, or two wins under my belt, or three wins, sorry,” said Korda, whose breakthrough triumph stood out so much that she had briefly forgotten her two previous wins on the year, a week prior and back in February.

Korda’s KPMG win not only marked the first American major win on the women’s side since 2018, but it also vaulted Korda to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, snapping a streak of 2,678 days since an American had last sat atop the world rankings (Stacy Lewis, 2014). Despite a late-season charge by Jin Young Ko, who won five times on the LPGA this year, Korda managed to hold onto that top spot to cap the year, which included four total LPGA wins by Korda, plus her gold-medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I kind of watched my highlights literally five days after the season, and I don't really like to watch highlights, but I just wanted to just to kind of reminisce a little,” Korda said last week at the PNC Championship, which she played with Petr. “I watched KPMG first. I feel like Olympics, very, very special. As a golfer and back in the day, you grew up wanting to win majors, right? … And finally getting that under my belt felt really, really nice. And then winning the gold, like that's amazing too. That comes once every four years, and that's such a huge honor to represent your country and to stand on that podium.

“But I would say definitely what I think about first is KPMG just because like that's, as a kid, that's what I really, really wanted, was a major championship.”

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Japan’s magical year

What a year for the golf-crazed nation of Japan.

Hideki Matsuyama, the country’s biggest superstar, brought home Japan’s first men’s major title in April by capturing the Masters – and later added a victory at the PGA Tour’s Zozo Championship, which returned to Japan after a one-year stint in the U.S. because of the pandemic.

A week prior to Matsuyama’s breakthrough win, Tsubasa Kajitana had her winning moment on Augusta National’s 18th green, as she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

The Tokyo Olympics happened – albeit sans fans – and Mone Inami earned her country a silver medal in the women’s golf competition.

And Keita Nakajima reached No. 1 in the world amateur rankings before earning himself a Masters invite by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur.

All incredible moments, though Matsuyama’s major certainly stands out. He came alive on Augusta National’s back nine on Saturday before holding on for a one-shot victory over upstart Will Zalatoris. While on a personal level, the win snapped for Matsuyama a drought that began in August 2017, it was clear that meant very little to him when compared to the implications for all of Japan.

While there have been many Japanese stars before him, none had done something as impactful and inspiring as this.

“Hopefully, I'll be a pioneer in this,” Matsuyama said afterward, “and many other Japanese will follow.”

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Tony Finau ends his curse

While Finau had been a PGA Tour winner since 2016, when he captured the Puerto Rico Open, he had yet to win a non-opposite-field event on Tour until this summer’s playoff opener, The Northern Trust.

For more than five years, Finau chased that second career Tour title. He came close a bunch, notching eight runner-up finishes (three in a playoff) and three other top-3s during that winless period, but after every failure had to field the questions of why he couldn’t seem to close.

A running joke on Golf Twitter until late 2020 was that Finau was among those being held back by the Puerto Rico Open curse. Until Viktor Hovland did so two falls ago at Mayakoba, no winner in Puerto Rico had won again on Tour. It took a little longer for Finau’s curse to wear off, but it did so at an important time.

Finau’s playoff victory over Cameron Smith at Liberty National not only ended his five-year drought, but it also locked up his spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“I've been thinking about that walk up 18 for a long time,” Finau said that Monday after Hurricane Henri pushed the finish into the next week. “It's been years. It's nice to finally have that and now put this second win behind me. This is extremely special. I thought my first one was going to be my most important one, but I actually think this one is. It validates the first one, but because of how long I've had to wait, I'm a totally different golf player because of how long I've had to wait.

“Nothing has come easy for me. I've lost in playoffs, taken second, third, in major championships. I've persevered and that's the biggest key is I haven't given up on myself and on my team.”

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Euro Tour’s oldest first-time winner

There were few feel-good stories as powerful as Richard Bland finally getting it done on the European Tour.

At 48 years old, and in his 478th start on the circuit, Bland became the tour’s oldest first-time winner by defeating Guido Migliozzi, who was half Bland’s age, in a playoff at the Betfred British Masters in May.

“Yeah … just … I’ve done it,” Bland said, emotional and struggling to get out words in his TV interview on the 18th green. “I’ve done it.”

After decades of bouncing between the European and Challenge tours. After coming within a few spots of the top 100 in the OWGR before later falling outside of the top 1,000. After 32 total top-10s on Europe’s top tour, including a playoff loss all the way back in 2002. After four runner-up finishes on the Challenge Tour two years ago to revive his career.

"The first few days [after winning] were just a blur really, a complete whirlwind, and everything that went off the back of it, which you don't expect, or you've never experienced that before, so you don't really know what's to come," Bland said "But yeah, it was great. It was great to have like a week off that I could sort of take it all in."

Of course, Bland wasn’t done. A month later, he shockingly took an early lead at the U.S. Open before tying for 50th and then posted seven more top-10s in Europe to comfortably break into the world’s top 100.

He’s currently 76th and just another great week or two from threatening for a Masters berth via the top 60 next spring.

Honorable mentions: Ole Miss women tops Oklahoma State for school’s first NCAA title – in any sport; Bryson DeChambeau breaks into the realm of long drive; Will Zalatoris earns special temporary status, secures PGA Tour card for 2021-22 and wins rookie of the year; Marcus Armitage gets emotional first career win at European Open; Matilda Castren secures maiden victories on LPGA, LET before qualifying for first Solheim Cup; Sam Burns wins Valspar, first Tour title, after leading or co-leading after eight different rounds earlier in the season; Amateur, college games take major leap forward with NIL-related changes.