SAN DIEGO – It wasn’t the Tiger putt, but then again, Tiger Woods’ effort on the 72nd hole didn’t actually win him the 2008 national championship. Jon Rahm’s putt at the last hole, even in hindsight, was a bona fide walk-off.
But the roar – oh, yes, the roar – was so wonderfully similar.
The cacophony reached all the way to Black’s Beach, a flourish to punctuate a chaotic day and an even more chaotic chapter in Rahm’s eventful career.
The USGA finally unveiled its new tagline for this year’s U.S. Open – “From Many, One,” an ode to the democratic DNA of this championship. On Sunday at Torrey Pines, it was a testament to arguably the most eventful final round since, well, since Woods ran down Rocco Mediate on a broken leg in ’08.
Many started the final turn with visions of a trophy ceremony in their heads. Three held a share of the overnight lead – Louis Oosthuizen, Russell Henley and Mackenzie Hughes – and 17 were within five shots of that threesome.
Slowly, surely and sadistically, all of those would-be champions fell away.
Henley and Hughes drifted out of contention early, each bogeying the first hole and then combining to play Nos. 5-8 in 5 over. As the final groups were making the turn, 10 players were either tied or within a stroke of lead. Within 45 minutes that number had dwindled to just two.
Brooks Koepka, who teed off nearly an hour and a half before the final group, moved to within a stroke of the lead with a 16-footer for birdie at the 15th hole following a flawless 3-under opening nine. However, two bogeys over his final three holes, including a dropped shot at the par-5 18th after a flubbed chip, left him tied for fourth place.
“All in all, I didn’t really have my stuff. I’ll finish probably sixth, seventh. It is what it is. Not very pleased. I guess it could be worse,” said Koepka, who has now finished inside the top 4 in his last four starts at this national championship.
Rory McIlroy was next. After taking a share of the lead late on the opening nine, the 2011 champion three-putted for bogey at No. 11 and made a mess around the 12th green, one made messier by a wicked plugged lie in the sand, on his way to a double-bogey-6.
“It was really two holes that basically stopped the sort of run at the title,” McIlroy sighed.
But the most dramatic moments were saved for Bryson DeChambeau. After moving into a share of the lead with a birdie at No. 8, the deconstruction started with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13. As if the afternoon wasn’t frenzied enough, as DeChambeau was playing the 13th hole a fan rushed into the fairway with a golf club and a few balls in hand. After dancing around and hitting some shots from the fairway, the overzealous fan was tackled by San Diego’s finest. Not to be overshadowed, DeChambeau launched his approach over the 13th green and his ball came to rest next to a case of Stella Artois.
“I’d pay an insane amount of money for that to have been a Michelob Ultra box,” Max Homa tweeted, a reference to the man-spat between DeChambeau and Koepka that came to a head two weeks ago at the Memorial when Koepka offered free beer to fans who’d heckled DeChambeau.
DeChambeau doubled the 13th hole, completing a three-hole, 4-over stretch that ultimately cost him his second consecutive U.S. Open victory.
“It was kind of weird,” said DeChambeau, who tumbled from a share for first early on the back nine into a tie for 26th. “I slipped twice on 13. I mean, that was really weird. I don’t know what happened. Then there was a streaker that came around, and I had no idea what happened with that. I’m just glad an officer clotheslined him. That was fun.”
No, it wasn’t fun. But then again, U.S. Opens almost never are. Meritocracies are messy, and the 121st edition left plenty to clean up.
Amid the din and discord, though, emerged Rahm. Through all the madness, the Spaniard was the relative calm in the SoCal storm.
There was a wayward drive at the ninth that flirted with the boundary fence, but he endured with a 3-footer for birdie. He missed the green at the 11th, the toughest Torrey Pines had to offer on Day 4, but he scrambled for par. Another wild drive at the 15th hole, another workmanlike par.
He was unapologetically U.S. Open until the very end. Until he charged in a 24-footer for birdie at the 17th hole to tie Oosthuizen and bark into the June gloom.
DeChambeau talked at length about unlucky bounces and bad breaks on his way to a closing 77. It’s something that would have sent a younger version of Rahm into a spiral, but not this version. The 26-year-old father of Kepa rolled with every punch the South Course threw at him. That’s not always been the way.
Even earlier this week, he was asked about his temper on the course. “Am I ever going to escape that question?” he moaned.
This performance, and this Rahm, may well have finally put the question of his temperament to rest.
“In the past I’ve gotten frustrated in the U.S. Open,” he admitted. “I’ve made a lot of birdies and a ton of bogeys and double bogeys, and I was able to kind of switch it up this week and actually made more birdies than bogeys and get it done.”
His 18-footer down the hill on the 18th hole was a calculated victory. After missing the green with his second shot, Rahm and caddie Adam Hayes decided to blast out away from the hole and avoid the water hazard and potential disaster lurking behind the direct line. It was a savvy move.
“I feel like the U.S. Open is the hardest to win because the conditions are going to be the toughest,” Hayes said. “To do it at a place this special and what happened a Muirfield and the expectations, it’s incredible. He was much calmer today than he was yesterday. He knew he was playing well.”
As for subtext, Rahm’s one-stroke victory over Oosthuizen is beyond complex. Torrey Pines is now the site of his first major championship victory, his first PGA Tour victory (2017 Farmers Insurance Open) and his first victory as a father. It’s also cut along the same rugged cliffs where Rahm proposed to his wife, Kelley.
For the pride of Barrika, Spain, this idyllic corner of the Southern California coast has become home.
“I do love Torrey Pines and Torrey Pines loves me,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Rahm become an unfortunate footnote as the first leader to be forced to withdraw from a Tour event after testing positive for COVID-19 at the Memorial. He had a six-stroke advantage and a record-tying 54-hole total at the time.
“He’s won two tournaments in a row,” McIlroy said. “I don’t care what anyone says.”
Some would have felt understandably snake bitten; while rules may be rules, it all felt so extreme. But not Rahm, and whatever karma he could enjoy – either real or perceived– would work just fine at Torrey Pines.
“It felt like such a fairytale story that I knew it was going to have a happy ending,” he said. “I could just tell, just going down the fairway after that first tee shot, that second shot, and that birdie, I knew there was something special in the air. I could just feel it. I just knew it.”
Even with groups still on the golf course, the crowd knew it, as well. This was another Torrey Pines moment.
A decade ago it was Woods and an improbable putt to force the last U.S. Open playoff. This time it was definitive.
This was a signature moment at a truly special place with Kelley and Kepa waiting for Rahm, the calm in the middle of another glorious Torrey Pines tempest.