A couple of decades from now when golf historians look back on Jon Rahm’s inevitably remarkable Ryder Cup record, this year’s edition of the matches at Whistling Straits might serve as something of a coming out party.
Although, what’s a party with a European performance on Friday that, save for Rahm, was as flat as three-day old Champagne? Unless European captain Padraig Harrington can locate a cloning laboratory in Sheboygan, Wisc., from which to replicate his Spanish star, it could be an empty week for the reigning Cup holders.
Still, much like the late Seve Ballesteros, and the leading point-scorer in the history of the event, Sergio Garcia, the 26-year-old and current world No.1 is proving that he is built for the Ryder Cup. Especially if his play on Friday is any indication of what’s to come, the rest of this week and the rest of the years ahead.
Playing alongside Garcia in the first foursomes match of the day, the two Spaniards blitzed Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, 3&1, in a match that wasn’t as close as the score. Then he marched back out to nab a halve with Tyrrell Hatton in the afternoon’s four-ball match against Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele.
US 6, Europe 2, with Rahm contributing one-and-a-half of those points.
“A little bit of pressure to play with somebody like that,” Rahm said of Garcia, who is playing in his tenth Ryder Cup and has scored a career 26.5 points. “But at the same time, with his ball-striking, I knew my job was going to be to make some putts, and that’s exactly what I did early on, and we kept the vibe going.”
After Spieth and Thomas took a 1-up lead on the second hole, Rahm responded by pouring in a 12-footer for birdie on the par-3 third to square the match. One hole later, he bombed in another, from 60 feet. Three more birdies followed on Nos. 7, 8 and 10 for the Spaniards to take a commanding 3-up lead and they never looked back.
With birdies on Nos. 15 and 17 to bring their total to eight on the day, they closed out the match without much of a sweat.
Then, Rahm, with he and Hatton 1 down on the 16th and Europe seemingly bleeding out, drained an 18-footer for birdie to keep hope alive. Schauffele responded by matching him but Rahm’s putt helped get the match to the 18th, where Hatton slid in a short putt to nab a half point.
In the end, though, it was Rahm who was one of the few players whose games showed up for Europe – by contrast Rory McIlroy, a veteran of now six Ryder Cups and lynchpin in and out of the team room, got annihilated in both of his contests Friday and is now to just 2-6 in his last eight matches dating back to singles in 2016.
“Things didn’t look great on 16 for a while,” Rahm said. “Glad we could get that halve. Almost feels like a win and now hoping we end strong as a team.”
That Rahm was Europe’s best player was not a surprise. He has 13 career worldwide wins, including a major, and is the top-ranked player in the world.
But the birth of his Ryder Cup prowess didn’t occur on Friday, or in winning all those titles, though they surely helped. Instead, it likely took place in the 2018 matches outside Paris.
After having contributed zero points in two matches over his first two days in that Ryder Cup – his first – Rahm was faced with the daunting task of taking on Tiger Woods in Sunday’s singles. Unnerved by his play to that point, he leaned on teammate Tommy Fleetwood and spent 30 minutes on the phone with his mental coach. Then he went out and beat his boyhood idol Woods, 2&1, clinching the victory with what he later called the best drive of his life on the 17th hole and a sensational approach to five feet to set up an easy birdie.
The fourth match of the day that afternoon, the victory helped stanch a comeback by the Americans, who began the day four points behind but had cut into the deficit by winning two-and-a-half points in the first three matches of the day.
Rahm’s victory that day was worth just a point but felt like more to him given the circumstances. The same could be said about his afternoon halve with Hatton on Friday. Rahm’s play was one of the few bright spots for Europe on an otherwise sunny day along the windswept shores of Lake Michigan.
“We can come back from 6-2,” said McIlroy.
Only if everyone else starts playing like Rahm.