Relentless Rahm collars Koepka
Sunday in the sun at Augusta
After heavy rain had disrupted play on both Friday and Saturday at the 87th edition of the US Masters, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm returned to Augusta on Sunday morning, separated by four strokes with still 30 holes to complete.
The brilliant amateur, Sam Bennett, was three shots further adrift in third but it was starting to look like a match.
Both men were on the seventh green when play was abandoned for the day on Saturday afternoon with water beginning to pool on the putting surfaces.
Although Koepka was trading at a shade of odds-on, given he had 12 feet left for par and Rahm was inside ten feet for birdie, it was odds-on there'd be a change on the leaderboard when play resumed and there certainly was...
Koepka missed his par save, Rahm made the birdie putt, and it was game on.
Hovland threatened to threaten
Neither man kicked on after that though, playing the remaining holes of round three in one-over-par, and after a sensational run on the back-nine, with a string of five consecutive birdies from the 11th hole, pre-event 50.049/1 chance, Viktor Hovland, closed to within three of Koepka and within one of Rahm with a round to go.
Hovland was matched at a low of 5.85/1 but he never really looked like winning after a slow start to round four and he eventually finished tied for seventh.
Third hole on Sunday shifted momentum
Rahm started round four slowly too, needing to save par from nine feet at the first before failing to birdie the par five second.
When Koepka stood over a seven-footer to stretch his advantage to three at the second, the pre-event 55.054/1 chance, who had hit a high of 130.0129/1 a few weeks earlier, was matched at a low of 1.758/11 but things changed in a hurry once his attempt just slipped by the hole.
You could feel the momentum shift when Rahm holed his birdie putt on the third and when Koepka bogeyed the fourth, the Spaniard was tied for the lead for the first time since Thursday.
Rahm hit the front at the sixth when Koepka dropped another shot, and he extended his lead to two with a birdie at the par five eighth.
Both men bogeyed the ninth and when Koepka let another slip at the 12th, the dangers to the leader appeared to be coming from further back.
Quartet of Americans charged up the leaderboard
Playing in the same pairing, past winners, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth, put in a monumental charge and both Russell Henley and Patrick Reed threatened to put some heat on the Spaniard too.
Lefty had gone off at in excess of 600.0599/1 but he was matched at low of 12.5, Spieth was matched at a low of 9.08/1, Henley hit 15.5 and Reed was matched at 23.022/1 but in reality, Rahm always looked like winning.
After his bizarre par at the 72nd hole, his margin of victory was four over Koepka and Mickelson.
Spieth, Henley and Reed finished tied for fourth and five strokes adrift.
Rahm's the first European to win both the US Open and US Masters and he's only the second to double-bogey the opening hole and go on to win. Sam Snead also made a six before winning back in 1952.
Like last year's winner, Scottie Scheffler, Rahm's victory was his fourth of the year so he was running hot and as was also the case with Scottie 12 months ago, his victory takes him to the top of the Official World Rankings.
Seve inspires Rahm from start to finish
Rahm's price spiked to 26.025/1 when he four-putted the opening hole but he responded brilliantly to end the opening round tied for the lead with Hovland and Koepka on seven-under-par.
It was a bizarre start but inspired by Seve Ballesteros' famous "I miss. I miss. I miss. I make." quote as he wondered to the second tee, Rahm picked himself up to make back-to-back birdies at two and three and he bookended the entire tournament with thoughts of the late great Spaniard.
With a four-stroke lead and the result beyond all reasonable doubt, Rahm hit a terrible drive left of the fairway on the 18th hole that bounced back off the trees to a distance that must be close to the shortest drive by a winner on the 72nd hole in major championship history (193 yards).
After a lay-up that left him 68 yards to the flag he chipped over the greenside bunker to within four feet before tapping in for a par four that he himself described after as a "Seve par".
It's 40 years since Seve won the second of his two Green Jackets so it was apt that Rahm kept him in his thoughts all week and his victory came on what would have been Seve's 66th birthday.
Rahm was a very worthy winner given he won by four after giving away two strokes on the opening hole and that he was drawn on the wrong side of the draw..
The pre-event 11.521/2 chance played in the worst of the weather on Friday and Saturday and the AM-PM starters averaged 2.42 more strokes than those that began the event on Thursday afternoon.
LIV Golfers in the shake up
Augusta form repeats year-after-year and former winners - Mickelson, Spieth, and Reed - all finished inside the top-six, but the big surprise for many was just how well the LIV golfers performed...
We're still in the very early stages of learning how form is going to translate but the consensus before the off here was that the LIV golfers just don't play enough or at a competitive enough level to compete at the highest level, but Reed traded at odds-on at the Dubai Desert Classic back in January and Brooks traded at odds-on here.
One could argue that when it came to the crunch, Koepka wilted at the end but equally, one could take the view that that had nothing to do with where he plies his trade.
In the fullness of time, will playing so much less golf prove to be advantageous? After all, nobody could dispute Phil's physical fitness at 52 and it was interesting to see Spieth blame too much golf for his up-and-down week.
"I think I played way too much golf into this," Spieth said. "I came in mentally fatigued, and you overwork this week every year. I played way too much golf in the last--I mean, this is eight out of ten weeks.
So, I need to change my schedule up going forward to be a little sharper this week. I think that has a lot to do with it."
Tour in-fighting rumbles on
The problem going forward is going to be how many LIV players are we going to get to see performing in the majors? With no world ranking points given to the LIV Golf events, slowly but surely less and less are going to qualify for the majors and that will be a shame as far as I'm concerned.
The whole thing is an absolute mess and I really hope they can sort it out because we the spectators and fans are the ones that are going to miss out and it may be controversial to say but maybe Greg Norman had a point.
Maybe the PGA Tour does have too much of a monopoly?
It looks highly likely that we've seen the last World Golf Championship and following the PGA Tour and DP World Tours Strategic Alliance, it's quite worrying what is to become of the DP World Tour.
One of their big stars, the 22 -year-old Dane, Nicolai Hojgaard, has gained Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour, courtesy of a second placed finish in Puerto Rico and a 22nd at the Texas Open and it sounds like he's going to head straight there.
"It's a great opportunity and I think we'll definitely chase it over here going forward. Honestly I can't wait to come back and play again."
More players set to leave the DP World Tour
That's a hammer blow to the DP World Tour and if Ryan Fox finishes 56th or better at the RBC Heritage this week, and Min Woo Lee finishes tied for 24th, they'll be joining the young Dane.
I sincerely hope the result at Augusta sets off a few alarm bells because we need to see a few people climb down from their moral high horses and think about the future. The game of golf and the spectators and fans need the bickering to stop.
The four major championships are far and away the best events of the year (and even more so now there are no WGC events) but that's only because they're so competitive. By hook or by crook, they need to stay that way for the good of the game.
Anyway, back to the result itself and there were a few conclusions to bear in mind going forward.
Are lower expectations the key to success?
It's notoriously difficult to defend the US Masters (only Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have achieved the feat) and it's noticeable how few players contend in consecutive years too.
And what was also apparent this year, was how few of the contenders were in-the-mix 12 months ago.
Rahm came into the tournament with Augusta form reading 27-4-9-7-5-27, so was never in the hunt last year, Koepka had missed his last two US Masters cuts and Mickelson didn't even play last year.
Henley had finished 30th (his worst performance in his last four visits), Reed had a couple of top-ten finishes to his name since he won the 2018 edition but he finished only 35th last year and course specialist, Spieth, had missed the cut in 2022.
Although course form is huge, coming into the event under the radar or with low expectations appears to be a plus. Could that be a positive for poor Rory McIlroy, who once again missed the cut when expectations were sky high?
Will Scheffler be the man to beat in 2024?
I doubt Rory is going to be a big enough price to draw me in next year but I'll be interested to see what price Scottie Scheffler and to a lesser extent, Sungjae Im are.
Scheffler's tied tenth was an impressive enough defence given how poorly he's been putting of late and he could emulate the likes of Ben Hogan (1951-53), Arnold Palmer (1958-60), Jack Nicklaus (1963-65), Phil Mickelson (2004-06) and Bubba Watson (2012-14), who all won their second Green Jacket two years after their first.
Im, who eventually finished tied for 16th, finished runner-up on debut here in 2020 and he caught the eye in round three this year when he was one of just three men to break 70 in the poor conditions. His five-under-par 67 was the best of the day and some knock.
One of Rahm's three earlier wins this year came at Riviera so the link between the two venues has been cemented even further and following Rahm's success yesterday as many as 13 Masters Champions have won 24 editions of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera.
Attention now turns to the RBC Heritage, which I've previewed here, but it won't be long before the next major and the countdown's on for the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on May 18. Understandably, Rahm is the new favourite there.
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