Jon Rahm Wins Masters, Surging Past Brooks Koepka

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Jon Rahm Wins Masters, Surging Past Brooks Koepka

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was early for a debacle at the Masters Tournament — the first hole of the first round — but on Thursday morning, Jon Rahm’s internal speedometer had seemingly vanished. Accustomed to calibrating his putts just so, Rahm found his speed off, his ball sliding long and escaping right, before logging a double bogey.

“Well,” Rahm thought as he headed to Augusta National Golf Club’s next tee, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make,” paraphrasing Seve Ballesteros, the greatest Spanish golfer of all and himself a victim of a Masters putting misadventure. Rahm considered something else, too: Unlike Ballesteros, he had 71 holes to recover.

He most certainly did.

Rahm, the towering Spaniard who dominated the PGA Tour in 2023’s first months, won the Masters on Sunday, overcoming days of punishing humidity, plunging temperatures, green-saturating rains and tree-toppling winds, as well as that Thursday mess on No. 1, to claim his second career major championship. His victory, beneath an eggshell blue sky, came after he began the final round trailing Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner who missed the Masters cut last April, by two strokes.

Rahm ultimately won by four strokes, 12 under par for the tournament.

“I’m looking at the scores, and I still think I have a couple more holes left to win,” Rahm said. “Can’t really say anything else. This one was for Seve. He was up there helping, and help he did.”

Rahm’s win kept at bay, at least for this month, a premier ambition of LIV Golf, the second-year league that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund bankrolled and then watched split men’s professional golf into embittered factions. Koepka has been one of the rebel circuit’s headliners and won a LIV event in Florida last week. Following it with a victory at Augusta National would have marked the first time a golfer had earned a major title as a LIV player. The league’s next chance will come in mid-May, at the P.G.A. Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, near Rochester, N.Y.

But Rahm methodically extinguished the league’s 2023 bid in Augusta, where the 88-player field included 18 LIV golfers. Although the league had a robust showing behind Koepka and Phil Mickelson, whose sensational Sunday outing at seven under eventually vaulted him into a tie for second with Koepka, the tournament ended with Rahm, a PGA Tour stalwart, poised to select the menu for next year’s dinner of Masters champions.

Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, will presumably be there, too. Koepka will not, even after finishing the first three rounds with at least a share of a lead, showing a consistency — until it disappeared — that was all the more remarkable given the meteorological and scheduling turmoil.

“I led for three rounds, and just didn’t do it on the last day,” Koepka said. “That’s it, plain and simple.”

When Koepka made bogey on the sixth hole Sunday, after a drive past the green, a chip that zipped well past the pin and a par putt that scooted just past the hole, he also surrendered the lead.

The par-5 eighth hole was a place where either man could gain ground: Both had made eagle there during the tournament. Koepka’s Sunday afternoon tee shot, though, came to rest on a stretch of pine straw, forcing a punch-out onto the fairway. Rahm guided his third shot onto the green, positioning him for a tap-in birdie that grew his advantage to two strokes.

But there were charges toward the top of the leaderboard playing out elsewhere among the pines. When Koepka and Rahm each made bogey at No. 9, a cluster of aspiring contenders hovered much nearer than they had hours earlier. Rahm stood at 10 under, and Koepka at eight under, tied with Jordan Spieth, who started the round at one under. Another five players — Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Russell Henley, Cameron Young and Patrick Cantlay — were at six under or seven under.

The gap between Rahm and Koepka stayed at two strokes until the 12th hole, that wondrously botanical landmark in the heart of Amen Corner. The hole, a 155-yard par-3, is the shortest test at Augusta National. Koepka lifted his tee shot high, and then it plunged toward the turf just behind the green, though he avoided the bunker. His second shot did not quite reach the green, and his third cruised to the right and beyond the pin. He made a putt for bogey.

That put Mickelson, 52, already done with his round, in a solo second place.

Koepka birdied the 13th hole to pull even with Mickelson, but Rahm preserved his three-stroke advantage with a birdie, his first since No. 8.

It did not last — because Rahm’s lead swelled to five strokes on the next hole. Rahm’s second shot, from near the tree line, plunked onto the green and then rolled in something approximating a semicircle until it stopped near the cup, setting up a putt for birdie. Koepka’s second shot also reached the green, but it rolled farther from the pin. A long try for birdie missed, and a much shorter one for par lipped out, sticking Koepka with a bogey, his fifth of the round.

He came close to making a putt for eagle at the 15th before settling for a birdie there.

Rahm led by four strokes with three holes to play. Koepka cut it to three with a majestic birdie after his tee shot cleared the water at No. 16, but his comeback possibilities were still narrowing quickly. It did not help that his ball, on his second shot at the 17th hole, went from a shadowed patch of east Georgia mud to where some spectators were sitting. He had made bogey on the hole near the end of the third round; he carded another as the tournament drew toward its conclusion, pushing Rahm’s advantage back to four strokes.

Rahm, whose lone major victory had been at the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, was virtually assured of a green jacket and, some months from now, a Masters trophy engraved with the signatures of every man he beat.

Once he made his tournament-ending par putt on the 18th green surrounded by a thick, roaring gallery, he jubilantly lifted his arms skyward, clinched his fists and then briefly covered his face with his hands. He plucked his ball from the cup and tipped his hat.

“Never thought I was going to cry by winning a golf tournament, but I got very close on that 18th hole,” he said.

Even by the standards of a star who first reached the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2020, Rahm has played especially well in recent months. In November, he won the DP World Tour Championship by two strokes. In January, he won two PGA Tour events, both with scores of 27 under par, and he captured the Genesis Invitational title in February.

He stumbled in March, with a tie for 39th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational; a withdrawal from the Players Championship with a stomach illness; and a mediocre showing at a World Golf Championships match play tournament. But he insisted he was an unbothered “week-to-week guy,” content to play one event to the next without becoming all that mentally hemmed in by his booms or busts.

“Every single tournament I go to, my plan is to win, and my mind-set doesn’t deviate from that,” he said last week.

Until Sunday evening, he had never finished better than fourth at Augusta National. But for this year’s tournament, his seventh Masters appearance, he arrived with such a storehouse of knowledge of the course that he suggested it would be challenging to use in full.

“I feel like it’s very difficult to apply everything you learn from each round here at Augusta National,” he said.

He added: “Obviously, the more you play, the more comfortable you get with a little bit of the lag putting out here, I would say. It can be very deceiving to understand some of the breaks and some of the speeds on the putts. You know, a little bit of learning and things like that, but at the end of the day, it’s a golf course where you have to come out here and play good golf, right? It’s plain and simple. There’s no trick to it. The best player wins, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”

He did it, on what would have been Ballesteros’s 66th birthday.

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