Standing over a 60-foot eagle putt on the 18th green at Torrey Pines, the same green where Tiger Woods made his “expect anything different?!” birdie to force a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open, Jon Rahm acted like he knew it was his time.
For those who had been paying attention, seeing the then-22-year-old Rahm atop a PGA Tour leaderboard was far from surprising. A decorated amateur and collegiate player, the young Spaniard had three top-five finishes in his first nine PGA Tour starts. He started the 2016-17 with three top 15s in five events, and on Sunday at the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open, he arrived at the final hole needing three putts from 60 feet to win.
A lot has happened since that January day. He has won four times on the PGA Tour and 11 times worldwide. He played on the victorious 2018 Ryder Cup team, beating Tiger Woods in Sunday singles. He even reached the No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking this past summer. In 108 professional events, he has had 54 top 10s. For the past four years, John Rahm has been one of the very best golfers in the world, and he hasn’t even reached his 26th birthday.
“Fore please! Jon Rahm, now driving.”
When that announcement is made on Thursday, November 12, it will mark the 16th time Jon Rahm has started a major championship as a professional. Four full years of majors. Four bites at each event.
Given all that he’s accomplished in the game, it’s natural to wonder why Rahm hasn’t won a major title. He has been a top-10 betting favorite in every major since the 2017 U.S. Open, only once having odds longer than 20-1. But when you dive deeper into Rahm’s major history, a dirty little secret emerges: he has never truly been in contention on Sunday.
Yes, Rahm has been in the top 10 entering the final round of a major championship four times. His best chance came at the 2018 PGA Championship, where he was three shots off the lead on Sunday morning, but he ended up taking a backseat to a duel between Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka. In the other three events—the 2018 Masters, 2019 U.S. Open, and 2019 Open—Rahm started the final round at least six shots behind the leader(s).
So while the history books show three top fives and four top 10s by Rahm in majors, we have to keep in mind that not all high finishes are created equal. He has never truly contended for a major championship on the back nine on Sunday.
In a recent interview with CNN, Rahm offered some insights into the disparity between his record in majors and his overall achievements. “Becoming a world No. 1 is a consequence of playing really good golf for a very long time, right?” he said. “Winning a major championship is performing really well for a week. The odds of people just coming in and just having a better week than you are very high.”
In theory, all of those points are valid, but they sound, at least to me, like excuses.
Now, major championship victories are not the lone criterion for success in golf. They are, however, the barometer by which history measures the greatest players. And according to that barometer, Rahm is a bit behind where he should be. Here’s how he stacks up against some of his contemporaries through their first 15 major championships:
Granted, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau don’t have hugely impressive records, either, but both have that elusive major victory. And while Rahm’s numbers are far from pedestrian, he does have the worst overall résumé of this group.
Particularly illuminating is how well Xander Schauffele comes off in this comparison. In two fewer events, Xander has accumulated more top fives and top 10s than Rahm. Plus, he has given himself legitimate shots at victory, as he was very much in the mix on Sunday at the 2018 Open and 2019 Masters. At Carnoustie, he started the final round tied for the lead and remained in contention until the 71st hole. Last year, five birdies in a seven-hole stretch had him knocking on the door at Augusta National.
So Schauffele has exactly the kind of pressure-cooker experience that Rahm lacks. He knows what it feels like to have a chance to win, not just a chance to secure a top five.
That type of experience is hard to quantify, but history suggests that it is important. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps not, but none of the major winners in the above chart—not Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, or Brooks Koepka—won the first major he contended for. “I just wasn’t ready for it,” Rory McIlroy told John Feinstein about his meltdown on Sunday at the 2011 Masters. “I was 21, and I’d never been in that position in a major.”
Rory McIlroy during his disastrous final-round 80 at the 2011 Masters
McIlroy learned quickly, though. Two months later, he won the U.S. Open by eight shots. “Everything is different,” he added in his interview with Feinstein. “You have to think ahead to get ready and then, if you have a chance to win, you’ve got to find a way to keep your mind on staying in the present.”
That kind of mental sophistication may be exactly what Jon Rahm is searching for. “I feel like there’s some magic formula that people have with their routine and what to do and how to deal with the stress of a major that maybe I haven’t figured out yet,” Rahm told CNN last month. “But I’m getting closer; each time I’m getting more comfortable and I’m having better chances.”
When Jon Rahm’s eagle putt fell at Torrey Pines in 2017, it didn’t feel like your average PGA Tour victory. He let loose a primal scream that rivaled Tiger’s in ’08, and it sounded like an emphatic warning of future dominance.
This season, we’ve seen similar dramatics from the Spaniard. His chip-in at Muirfield Village (in spite of the ensuing penalty) and his playoff-winning bomb at Olympia Fields were the definition of clutch. Clearly he knows how to close out a win; he just hasn’t given himself a chance to do so on the biggest stages.
Jon Rahm might not win a major the first time he’s in the hunt for one. He might not win the second or third times, either. But if he gets himself into contention on Sunday at Augusta, even if he doesn’t emerge victorious, his performance won’t be a failure. It will be his next step.