(Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
By John Huggan
Yes, the highest-ranked player in the field won, an end result that at first glance suggests an unsurprising mixture of inevitability and predictability. But Jon Rahm’s two-shot victory in the Open de España was, for long enough, far from straightforward. With two holes to play over the Centro Nacional de Golf course in Madrid, the World No. 4 was 19 under par for the week, tied with compatriot Nacho Elvira and two strokes clear of Irishman Paul Dunne, the overnight leader. Barring disasters all round, the destination of the historic trophy—first played for in 1912 and a part of the European Tour since 1972—was down to those three men.
Rahm first. With water running all the way down the left side of the short 17th, the powerful Basque played for his usual fade and aimed a little left of the pin. It didn’t take. The ball pitched on the bank left of the green and hung up in one of the few pieces of long grass bordering the lake. It was a huge piece of luck, one Rahm took advantage of. A deft chip-and-putt saved his par.
Elvira next. The 31-year-old Madrid native, a four-time winner on the second-tier European Challenge Tour, hit a similar shot to Rahm. Crucially, however, it landed maybe two yards further left and disappeared forever. The chip to save par lipped-out, and so did the three-foot putt for bogey.
As for Dunne, the British Masters champion could do no better than par. Suddenly, Rahm had a two-shot advantage over both of his nearest challengers. And when Rahm reduced the 527-yard par-5 final hole to no more than a drive and a short-iron approach en route to a routine birdie, the destination of the €250,000 first-place check was all but decided. As it turned out, Dunne’s closing birdie was enough to clinch second alone. Elvira took three to get down from beyond the final green.
Not surprisingly, Rahm was more than delighted at the close. But mixed with his obvious pleasure was a sense of relief. Followed by vast crowds around the rather bleak-looking municipal venue that had only eight weeks to prepare for an event that was missing from the European Tour schedule last year, the pre-tournament favourite was clearly feeling the pressure to succeed in front of his home fans. His putting on the clearly inconsistent greens betrayed his tension; all week, Rahm struggled on the bumpy surfaces.
Still, by the end, all of that was forgotten. Settled by a more than solid beginning to his day (he birdied his first two holes), Rahm immediately closed the two-stroke gap between himself and Dunne. Only once, at the short ninth, did he drop a shot in his closing five-under 67.
“This is hard to describe,” said a clearly emotional Rahm. “The feeling of pride and satisfaction is amazing. This is the hardest Sunday I have ever had to play. Everyone seemed to want me to win. I felt that. And it was hard to deal with. I tried to isolate myself, but I could feel it. So to win here is great.
Rahm was not looking to play too aggressively at first on Sunday. “But I hit four perfect shots on the first hole [for a birdie],” he said. “Then I just kept the good play going.
“My putting hasn’t been too great all week. But I gained a lot off the tee, which made up for a lot. There were a lot of key moments today. I chipped in on 10 for birdie, for example. But the three-foot putt on 17 for par was the most important. When I made that putt, I got on the 18th tee and hit my drive as hard as I could. I wanted the shortest club I could into the green. The drives I hit on 13, 15, 16 and 18 were absolute bombs.”
For the record, this was the 23-year-old Rahm’s third European Tour victory and his second national title, following his win in last year’s Irish Open. Fourth alone in last week’s Masters at Augusta National, one suspects he might just scrape his way on to the European Ryder Cup team come September.