Jul
9
2017
Jon Rahm cruises to dominating Irish Open victory despite rules scare
By Stephanie Wei under European Tour

Jon Rahm added to his growing legend with his runaway six-shot victory at the Irish Open at Portstewart GC. The 22-year-old Spaniard fired an impressive seven-under 65 in the final round — and he even missed a three-footer on the 72nd hole — to post 24-under for the championship, breaking the tournament scoring record by three strokes.

Rahm started the final round tied for the lead with American Daniel Im, both of whom posted 54-hole totals of 17-under. But Rahm quickly took control on the front nine, beginning with a hole-out eagle from the fairway on the par-5 4th hole to take the outright lead by two.

“There were 14 holes left,” said Rahm when asked if the eagle gave him momentum. “I did not think that (it meant I was going to win). I thought, well, I have myself a little gap right now; let’s increase it. It did give me a lot of confidence. I knew there were a couple holes coming up I could take advantage of. It really was quite special.” Rahm rolled in three straight birdies on nos. 7-9 to make the turn and extend his lead to five strokes. Make that four birdies in a row after he carded another on the 10th. It seemed clear at this point that Rahm wasn’t going to let up and he would very likely go on to win the tournament.


There was a hiccup with a potential rules infraction on the sixth green that was called to Rahm’s attention by European Tour chief rules official Andy McFee between the 13th green and 14th tee. McFee approached Rahm and asked him about how he marked his ball on no. 6.

Rahm told McFee that he intentionally marked his ball to the side because it was pretty much on top of his playing partner Im’s mark. He then moved his mark a putter-head length to the right so it wasn’t in Im’s line. When Rahm went to move his mark back and replace the ball, he appears to put it in front of the mark instead of to the side. But he told McFee that he thought he replaced it in the same position.

McFee cleared Rahm of any infraction, but Rahm was ready to incur a penalty at the time if he had indeed breached a rule. I’ve been trying to embed the damn video for about an hour, but Instagram is being annoying and the code isn’t coming up, so we’ll have to settle with a link to the footage that shows the incident on the sixth green.

Following the decision, McFee spoke to the media and explained that Rahm had made a “reasonable judgment” to return the ball to the correct position:  

 

“When he marked the ball initially, he quite clearly marks it so the side of the ball. Now it’s not exactly 90 degrees to the side, because when I look at it pretty he closely on the tape, I think I can see more of the ball in front of that 90-degree line. So it’s off-centre but he knows he’s done that. And then when he puts the ball back, it looks like the ball is going back slightly in front of the coin rather than to the side. So then you’ve got a question, well, has he put the ball back down in the right place.

“…And the reason why there is no penalty is because I think Jon’s made a reasonable judgment here. “What I see is I see the ball being lifted from a position which is not at 90 degrees on a marker. So if you put that in relation to the clubface, it’s not nine o’clock, as opposed to 12 o’clock. He definitely hasn’t marked it at 12 o’clock. He’s marked it at, say, ten o’clock.

“And then when he puts the ball back down, he definitely hasn’t put the ball back down right in front of the ball marker, which would be 12 o’clock. He’s puts it down slightly off-centre, and I would say it’s a difference between ten o’clock and 11 o’clock. So there’s a slight margin.

“Now the complicating factor is that when you look at this on the TV screen, you see a lot of the images are — the hand obscures the exact location of the ball marker, so it’s a little bit imprecise in that respect. But secondly we are talking about a player moving his ball marker off to the side to get it out of the way of a fellow competitor and then moving it back again.

“There’s always going to be a small margin for error for this, and this is where it gets quite technical. Because where is the dividing line. And the new decision that the R&A and USGA crafted, with full knowledge and work from the PGA Tour and ourselves is all about trying to eliminate these fine margins and get to a position whereby if the player has made a reasonable judgment, then the game will accept if it’s slightly wrong.

“It won’t accept if it’s wildly wrong, and a lot of it depends on what the player is trying to do, how good a view he’s got of what he’s doing, and how close he gets back to the original spot.

“So I needed to have a conversation with Jon because I needed to have his words of what his memory was of what went on on the sixth green. I got to him when he came off the 13th, and he clearly said to me that he knew he had marked the ball to the side, and both he and Daniel said that while he clearly made an effort to move it back to the side, that tallies with what I’m seeing on the picture.

“Because again, we’re getting to this very fine margin of, yeah, I don’t think the ball was put down in exactly the right place, but I think it falls within the player has made a reasonable judgment to putt it back. So that’s why there’s no penalty.”

To be clear, the incident with Rahm is not a precise example to compare to the Lexi Thompson controversy that occurred at the ANA Inspiration in April. (The R&A and USGA immediately implemented a rule change to limit the use of video several weeks after the ANA, but even with this new rule, it’s not clear that Lexi would’ve been exonerated, anyway.)

First of all, the margin with which Lexi replaced her ball was much larger compared to Rahm. Secondly, Rahm moved the mark a putter-head length so that it wouldn’t be in Im’s line and let Im putt out before replacing his mark to the original position and then the same with the ball.

“I think the margin in the Lexi Thompson would be slightly different to this one,” said McFee. “That would maybe be more of the ball replaced to the side and in front of, where this one is — it’s not quite that stark. The difference is not quite that stark.

“And also, the big difference is that in this case, you’ve got an intervening act. You’ve got the player moving the ball marker off to the side and then moving it back again. That by itself means that the ball is probably not going to go back in exactly the right place.

“But has it gone back close enough to its original position for the rules to say there’s a reasonable judge many been made by the player here and fall within the limitation of video evidence, which is now there for us all to use? Yeah, it has.”

In Lexi’s case, she marked her ball — and if you watch the video, her eyes never leave the ball — and she turns it before replacing it clearly in front and to the side of the original position. (I’m so fed up with the outrage in replies showing up in my Twitter mentions over dozens of people defending Lexi’s honor. It’s a “similar” incident, but NOT THE SAME THING.)

McFee said it was clear that Rahm did not replace his ball *precisely* to where it was, but he passed the smell test in that it was close enough.

“He’s definitely made the effort to put it back, because I say, because it hasn’t gone down directly in front of; it’s gone down to one side,” said McFee. “I describe it as 11 o’clock. For me, we’re talking about the difference between the ball being lifted at ten o’clock on the ball marker and being put back at 11 o’clock.”    

Rahm’s press conference started in an unorthodox fashion as he had told the European Tour media official that he wanted to start by addressing the incident that occurred on the sixth green.

“I’m going to do this before you guys ask me because I know it’s coming.
“Basically what happened on No. 6, I’m going to tell you guys all I know. Daniel putted it, ended up a foot and a half just right of the hole. I hit my putt, ended up on the same exact ball his ball ended up. So his marker was what I was going to mark it.

“So what I did to make it faster, because it was raining, I put it on the side of my ball, knowingly. I put it on the side of my ball. I know it’s a little suspicious sometimes but I knowingly did it. I moved my marker so it was not in the way of Daniel’s and put it back, and when I replaced my ball I thought it was in the same exact spot what I had picked it up. I really thought I had put it back on the same spot, and that was it for me. I didn’t doubt myself twice.

“Then Andy came and told me on 13 that they had had a couple of complaints that I had put the ball in a different spot, I had improved my lie or something like that. And that’s when he told me, listen, this is what we saw. He did tell me, he didn’t think I put it on the same exact spot, but he didn’t think it was a big enough difference to make a big deal about it, to make anything about it.

“I just told him my version. I told him, listen, Andy, I know, I did it on purpose. I put it on the side to not bother Daniel and to be able to put my mark as far away from his as possible, put it back and to my eyes, I put it exactly to the same spot it was. To my eyes, it was there, and that was it.

“I told him, listen, if it’s a penalty stroke, let me know now, I’ll accept it. This is what I did. I did it. If it’s not on the right spot, if it’s a penalty stroke, let me know. He told me there’s been a change in the rules. There’s some room for — there’s some margins left on the rule now and it was left to interpretation. And that was the decision. I told him, right on the spot if it’s a penalty stroke, let me know. But I haven’t seen the footage yet, to my eyes, it was pretty much on the same spot where I put it.

I’m good with that. I will say I understand this “reasonable judgment” decision does create a gray area with regards to intent, but I’ve always thought that many parts in the Rules of Golf allow for that already. I know this won’t be the last of it even though I wish it were, but go ahead and attempt to compare today’s incident with the one involving Lexi Thompson in April. Like I said, the incidents weren’t apples and apples because of the intervening factor (moving the mark out of Im’s line) and the margin.

Oh, one other thing: Rahm would’ve simply tapped in the putt, which would have avoided this entire conversation/controversy, but Im’s mark was in the way.

“When I have Daniel’s marker right behind my ball, I can’t do that (tap it in),” said Rahm. “Otherwise, I would have done it.”

“You know, whenever we can, and we’re not going to bother the other line or we’re not going to step on the other player’s line and we feel comfortable, we do it. Just try to get out of the hole as soon as possible. The situation didn’t call for, it otherwise I would have done it.”

Moving on!


 

Rahm was fired up after the conversation he had with McFee before he teed off the 14th. Although he ultimately made eagle on the par-5, he wasn’t thrilled with his drive and let go of his club in his follow-through. Rahm apologized for the several instances at Portstewart where he showed frustration and exhibited behavior that could be considered conduct unbecoming a professional. Earlier in the week, he apologized for his behavior at the U.S. Open, saying he was “deeply embarrassed” by his actions.

“There was a couple moments the second day where I did stop myself, or maybe today I could have done a better job,” said Rahm on Sunday. “I need to apologize. I feel bad for letting the club go on a couple tee shots, like 14 and 17. Even if I had a big lead, I was still focussed on the moment and I was still focussed on doing the best I can do. And the lead wasn’t on my mind. I was just trying to get birdies, even if I had a big lead. It was just the way I was into the game.

“Maybe I got a little more emotional than I would have taken it because in the back of mind, I was so happy that I was so close from being in this situation right now, and I let it get the best of me a little bit.

“But that would be the time where maybe I almost lost it. Maybe partially because of the conversation I had on 13 about the ruling on 6. But still, I should have done a better job, just because it just looks foolish. I just felt a little stupid because I had a six-shot lead on 17. I should not have done that. It seems pretty childish when I’m leading a tournament by that much and I do that. It’s something I need to learn from. First time I’ve been in this situation, and it won’t happen again and I’m really sorry for doing it.”

Rahm’s dominating performance with an elite field this week will add to his confidence and knowing he has what it takes to close out a tournament in such fashion, not to mention on a links course, especially with the Open Championship taking place at Royal Birkdale the week after next. Rahm noted that his previous record on links tracks hadn’t been good.

“I said at the beginning of the week, even before the tournament started, that I haven’t played — again, I haven’t played my best golf on links golf courses,” said Rahm. “There was always something else. And to play the way I did here, it proves to me I can perform properly on a links golf course.

“And that’s what I’ve got to take to The Open. I know now that I have what it takes. Before that, there was a little bit of doubt in my mind but now I know that I have what it takes to win a tournament on a links golf course.

“The Open Championship, it’s a little different deal just because a major championship will be set up probably harder than this week was. But nevertheless, I know I can read the putts right, and I know I can interpret the wind and I can hit the shots and I can manage myself around the golf course properly enough to have a chance to win The Open.”

To be fair, it’s probably important to note that the conditions were rather tame at the Irish — there was what the locals would describe as a gentle breeze (if that) on Saturday, but nothing crazy. The elements never came into play the way they can and usually do. Sure, it was raining steadily Sunday afternoon, but rain isn’t really even close to as a big of an obstacle/challenge as wind, and it stayed tame all day.

Still, the only important component at the end of the day is Rahm’s belief in himself and to shoot seven-under in the final round to win by six makes quite a statement.

He played phenomenal on Sunday and by his standards, he said he didn’t miss a shot until the 13th tee.

“After that hole-out (on no. 4), I said a couple of times, I considered that I did not miss a shot until 13 tee shot.

“Pretty much every hole besides 11, I had a putt inside ten feet for birdie. On this golf course, that is good, with the wind that we had. I wouldn’t say it was the greatest shot I’ve ever hit. I think still, my second shot off the fairway bunker at Torrey Pines on 13 was a better shot, even if I didn’t make it. Just similar, right. It changed the trajectory of the whole round, and that shot was still pretty hard. But this one is up there. It’s really close.”

Rahm has taken the golf world by storm in his rookie year. He won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January and then he was in contention consistently for several months following his maiden victory, with notable performances at the WGC-Match Play Championship and the WGC-Mexico Championship. More recently, Rahm hit a bit of a wall, with missed cuts at The Memorial and the U.S. Open. However, he seemed to be coming back to form with a T10 finish at the French Open last week, and it appears he took that momentum with him into the Irish.

“I know the trophy is right next to me and my name is going to be there for ever now, but it seems hard to believe that it’s happened,” he said. “It’s kind of somewhat surreal. It’s hard to explain. I just look at it and I see Nick Faldo, I see Jose Maria Olazabal, I see Nick Faldo again, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve. That’s a great list of great — and greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to it, and the last one, Rory McIlroy, it’s so special.

“Not just to win this event but to win it at the place I just won it, Portstewart, great golf course, with the fans supporting me better than I’ve ever seen anybody support me. It’s been unbelievable.

“What I said, I’ve never played my best golf. To actually play my best golf that I can remember till this day and shoot 24-under on this golf course and win it by six, man, that is not something I would have believed I was capable of. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of, and it’s a really, really special day.”

Now, with his runaway victory at the Irish Open, he’s definitely in top form heading into the year’s third major. He’s projected to move to no. 8 in the world rankings from no. 11. This is already the second time he’s cracked the top ten in his fledgling career, with the first being after tying for runner-up at Colonial in May.

Rahm will have a short break to celebrate his maiden win on the European Tour before he prepares for the Open. He and his girlfriend Kelley Cahill are headed to Marbella in the South of Spain this upcoming week (which sounds refreshing right now as I look at the dreary and rainy weather outside the media center at Portstewart).


 

That’s all for now. I’ve been working on producing some new podcasts, but it’s been tough with everyone’s crazy schedules and the time difference, but stay tuned.  Check out my Instagram for pictures from some of the amazing golf courses I had the opportunity to play in Northern Ireland this past week. (I recommend following to access my Insta-story from every day.) I’ll write about these brilliant links tracks and post pictures when I can (which may not be for several weeks). I’m making the journey and driving to Troon for the Scottish Open tomorrow. See you there.

Thanks for your continued support.