LA QUINTA – Jon Rahm has quite the comfort level in Southern California, and the desert in particular. Maybe that was the difference Sunday.
Or maybe it was the comfort level of having been in this position before.
Rahm outlasted a group of pursuers, and particularly precocious rookie Davis Thompson, to win the Coachella Valley’s PGA stop for the second time. And he found it mildly amusing, after the fact, that in a venue that normally features bunches of birdies, hardly anyone was making putts down the stretch.
Winners can laugh, you know. Or at least smile.
Rahm finished The American Express at 27-under-par with a final round 68 on the Pete Dye Stadium Course, one shot ahead of Thompson and two ahead of Xander Schauffele and Chris Kirk, who made charges late in the day. Schauffele was 10-under for the day, as was Erik van Rooyen, and Garrick Higgo birdied nine straight holes at one point and was 9-under for the day, but the latter two were coming from way behind. Last-round pressure may have slowed the leaders’ momentum to a halt.
“I’m, in a weird way, glad that today went the way it went,” Rahm said. “I’ve enjoyed some runaway victories, I’ve enjoyed some comebacks, but today was certainly a struggle. Out of the five birdies I made, what is it, one, two, three of them were tap-ins and the other two were basically 6-footers. So that tells you the story. Didn’t really make much today, even though everything looked really good and a lot of them looked like any of them could have gone in. But (I) kept battling.”
The key putt of the afternoon, as it turned out, was one of those 6-footers, albeit an unorthodox one. On the par-5 16th he hit one that spun around the hole one full revolution before dropping in. Remember the late Chick Hearn’s expression of how a basketball shot would go around the rim “like a motorcycle in a motordrome?” Same principle.
This one brought a relieved fist pump from Rahm, and it turned out to be the difference when Thompson left his tee shot in a deep bunker, had to scramble to get within birdie range and left a 24-footer just short. That put Rahm back up by a shot, and he rode that margin to the end.
Rahm talked Saturday about putts that he hit well but just didn’t go in, and it seemed to be the same story Sunday, only the malady seemed to have spread.
“I can tell you there’s a few,” he said. “I mean, on 5, 7, 8, 10, 15, 17 and 18, all of those putts were good. All of them looked like they were dead center with two feet to go and just at the end they just missed. Luckily, the one on 16 curled in. I made the one on 14 that I needed to not give up the lead.
“(Saturday) on the front nine I basically felt like I couldn’t miss for the first 14 holes. I mean, the hole looked as big as it could ever look. I can definitely say the first 54 holes, some putts that weren’t as good as some of the rolls I put in today definitely went in. … My ball striking got better and my putting maybe not as good as I would have liked. But if I were to play at that level every single round, well, yeah, I would be winning by six or seven. That’s just not easy to do.”
Of course, you can look at it another way. It seems funny to shoot 27-under and have to go down to the wire to win, but Rahm said he feels the level of play among the average player is better than ever.
” I would like to know in years past if you shoot 27-under how many of ’em you win by one,” he said. “Not many. Most of the time you’re winning by a comfortable margin. So it goes to show how good everybody is getting.”
Thompson’s ability to hang in there, in the first PGA Tour event in which he was at the top of the leaderboard on the final day, was impressive. He had some hiccups off the tee, and after playing the par-5s with such success earlier in the week he was bogey-par-birdie-par Sunday. But it was a success even if he didn’t win.
“Competing against the best in the world is my dream, and I did that today and proved that I can hang with ’em,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. (I had) a lot of nerves and I hit a lot of quality golf shots under pressure, which was really cool.”
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Two shots toward the end were telling. He almost pulled off a miraculous save on 17, the par-3 with the island green, when he hit his tee shot over the green and into the fringe, 48 feet from the hole, then hit the flagstick with his putt coming back. It bounced two feet from the hole, leaving him a par putt. Since Rahm also parred the hole, it was a missed chance to pull even.
And on 18, after hitting his second shot behind the green and into a gully, he was confident enough to chip within a foot of the flag and save par.
“It just kind of goes back to if you want to make it, you chip it. If you want to hit it up close, you putt it. So I was obviously trying to make it. Figured I might as well.”
He seemed cool and composed, and maybe two bad tee shots hurt him. On the par-5 fifth hole he hit his tee shot into the water. And on 16, another par-5, he hit it left into a fairway bunker.
“Make no mistake, what you see and what he feels could be completely different things,” Rahm said. “We’re all nervous out there. You feel it. It’s just how you deal with it. First time in this situation, teeing off with the lead on Sunday in a PGA tour event. I think he did a great job. He played good golf. It was just, I would say, two bad swings at the wrong time.”
He’ll learn, and he’ll be better for it.