Big Bad Jon

Often described as too hotheaded, Jon Rahm knew exactly what strategy he wanted to employ to win a green jacket


Jon Rahm has not only found a way to keep his own head, but has also found his preferred way to get in the heads of his competitors. After his last win at Riviera in February, he told Golf Channel that, “People don’t think too much about this but it was important to start teeing off ahead of Max [Homa],” who he beat down the stretch after taking the tee box following the 13th hole. At the Masters, where Sunday became hyped as a one-on-one bout between two of the sport’s beefier stars, Rahm took the tee box from Brooks Koepka at the 3rd green and didn’t give it back until the 16th, when he already had one arm in the green jacket.

Koepka is arguably the best major championship golfer of the last decade largely because of  his mental steadiness in the most pressurized events. Homa has been no slouch, either, as one of the PGA Tour’s best closers in the last couple years. But it must be a frustrating thing to watch the unrelenting Rahm tee off ahead of you and just keep squeezing tighter.

“I wasn’t expecting Brooks to play bad,” Rahm said in his new green jacket. “I can’t expect that, right. I need to bring the fight to him. So when I took the tee on 4, the goal is to keep giving him something to look at, meaning, if I hit a good shot, just for him to see that I have a birdie chance but keep putting the ball in the fairway and keep making good swings for him to feel more of the pressure rather than me, right, me be the one pushing.”

Courtesy of the Masters Tournament

Rahm moved from four shots back at the start of the day to four shots clear at the end of it. Koepka was far from his best, but Rahm had something to do with that. Brooks can be a physically imposing presence. His walk is a little arrogant and his shirts are a little tight and that’s the way he likes it. He’s always boasted that, unlike his competitors, he’s a “real athlete.” This effect was neutralized on Sunday because, well, Rahm is bigger. He’s even more of an imposing, lumbering presence than Brooks. That’s to say nothing of the actual golf shots that he is able to hit. Rahm, from the bursts of power on the tee box to the soft hands around the green, keeps applying pressure.

The last time Koepka played with an Arizona State product in the final group of the final round of a major, the dynamic was similar. Phil Mickelson got the best of Koepka at the 2021 PGA Championship when no one expected it. At Kiawah, the frenzied crowd pushed hard for the elder Mickelson instead of the recent four-time major winner. At Augusta on Sunday, some of that crowd favoritism was in play. Also in play: brutally slow pace of play, a known Koepka bugaboo that got in his head at Kiawah. It didn’t seem that a single peripheral variable was leaning in Brooksy’s favor.

The pace was relatively brisk in the morning resumption of the third round, and Koepka just kept humming, working quickly and mostly avoiding bogeys to stay in front of Rahm. After the morning session, one former Masters winner suggested during the break between rounds that Rahm should slow-play Koepka in the afternoon. Here’s where some of the Kiawah similarities break down. Yesterday’s  five-hour round was not due to some deliberate Rahm action but rather the groups ahead that had both in the final group brooding in fairways and tee boxes. The pace was dreadful and it showed early: at the second hole, and again at the fourth hole, where Rahm took that tee box, the pair waited for what felt like 10 minutes to hit their tee shots. The wait dragged on again at the 8th, and continued to the last par-3, the 16th. It was constant, and it did not feel fair to the final group, both relatively fast players.

The final pairing on the 16th tee

“The group in front of us was brutally slow,” Koepka said afterwards of Patrick Cantlay and Viktor Hovland. “Jon went to the bathroom like seven times during the round, and we were still waiting.“ This happened on the 16th tee, where Rahm ducked out for a bathroom break with Cantlay still reading his putt and still came back with plenty of time before the stroke was made. It was a five-hour round for twosomes and additional lighting had to be brought in for the trophy ceremony on the putting green.

The slow pace could have exacerbated Koepka’s shakiness during the final round, but it certainly did not impact Rahm, the one with the early scouting report for having a hothead that would get in his own way. Rahm caught up and tied it by the fourth hole and as the day dragged on, his lead grew. He adjusted and played with that cushion in mind, making no bogeys on the second nine. Rahm’s last nine resembled the playbook from Koepka from a few years ago, the ultimate bogey avoider during his major run. 

In the long, slow day, Jose Maria Olazabal may have moved the fastest of anyone. There is no running at Augusta National, ever, but Olazabal had somewhere to be. So with one arm in his green jacket, the 1994 and ‘99 Masters champion raced out of the clubhouse and continued to slip into his coat while doing that patented Masters speed walk we see from fans each morning as they hustle out for the best viewing spots on the course.

Rahm was putting out on the 18th green to become the fourth Spanish winner of the Masters, joining Seve Ballesteros, Olazabal, and Sergio Garcia. Sports media and golf writers often overdo the connection between Spanish golfers. But on Sunday night, those champions themselves were showing and telling us about the connection – how strong it is and what it means to them. Sunday was Ballesteros’s birthday, as we were reminded often during the broadcast. But at Rahm capped off his acceptance speech on the putting green with a “Rest in peace, Seve.” Clearly the meaning of the Spanish golf lineage is not just a made-for-television construction. Shortly after getting down to the 18th green for a hug with the next great Spanish champion, Ollie added that the possibility of a Rahm win on Seve’s birthday “was in the back of our minds all week.” 

With the continued presence of its past winners, the Masters connects generations better than any pro golf tournament. It was three years ago that the short-game icon, Olazabal, was seen on Golf Channel grinding with Rahm in the chipping area at the November Masters. For the golf tragics, this was a drug. It was riveting. This year, according to Olazabal, the pair played a practice round on Tuesday and discussed the dream of a Spanish win on Sunday. So it was no surprise to again see Ollie rushing to the green to give Rahm a hug. 

Both Ollie as well as Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, called the new champ a golf history sicko, mentioning how often Rahm watches old videos on YouTube. He’s into studying the records, not just of the Spaniards or greats that preceded him, but of the Masters itself. This Masters came at a historic time as the first one since LIV fractured the men’s game last summer. That undercurrent was impossible to miss throughout the week, including in the final group. The gallery was certainly not anti-Koepka, like the rowdy crowd pushing for Mickelson in Kiawah, but it was urging Rahm on, as evidenced by the roars that went up around the course when manual leaderboards showed the Spaniard’s margin jump from three to five at the 14th hole. Hayes noted the support that seemed to swell on his player’s side. “Jon is often rooted for less in America,” he said. “But I feel like Jon had a few more people out there rooting for him.”

“I think it was around my birdie on eight, when I took a couple-stroke lead, is when things turned a little bit,” Rahm said of the galleries. “Even with that bogey on 9, the support was pretty incredible all throughout, and I kept hearing, ‘Seve! Seve! Seve! Do it for Seve!’ I heard that the entire back nine. That might have been the hardest thing to control today, is the emotion of knowing what it could be if I were to win; that might have been the hardest thing.”

Based on the early career scouting reports and cliches on Rahm’s temperamental attitude, competitors have banked on the Spaniard not “controlling his emotions” to level the playing field—it’s what they can hope for when they come up against a player who has all the shots. Some of those shots, like Rahm’s approach into 14th green that really sealed the tournament, are “video game shots,” as his caddie called them. On the mental side, Rahm seems strong as ever and with a preferred formula: get the tee and break down the opponent with all those shots that come in waves from his natural talent. It’s enough to wear a green jacket around for the next year.