Planet Golf — 29 April 2022 by GW staff and news services
Rahm class of field; wins Mexico Open

VIDANTA VALLARTA, Mexico – Inside the ropes, Jon Rahm maintains a laser focus.

The world No. 2 is one of the game’s premier athletes, a well-rounded power player who matches a high-voltage acoustic at impact with consistent competitive fire.

“He’s an athlete,” said Rahm’s caddie Adam Hayes. “He’s a competitor. When he’s out here, it’s business. It’s work.”

Perhaps the only factor that can provide a crack in Rahm’s competitive armor is family. As he approached the final green at this week’s Mexico Open at Vidanta, needing a two-putt from 23 feet on the back fringe to secure his first victory of the 2021-22 PGA TOUR season, Rahm caught a glance at his wife Kelley and 1-year-old son Kepa.

He allowed his mind to wander, albeit briefly, from the task at hand.

“At one point when I was reading the break, I saw (CBS reporter) Amanda (Renner) kind of give way for Kelley and Kepa to walk up to the front,” Rahm said. “I could only think, ‘I’d better two-putt this to make sure we can enjoy this moment.’”

Rahm did just that. The 27-year-old Spaniard lagged his birdie try to within inches of the hole, and he tapped in for a one-stroke victory at Vidanta Vallarta, finishing one stroke clear of a trio of players – Tony Finau, Brandon Wu and Kurt Kitayama – with a 17-under total amidst an idyllic setting in western Mexico.

Rahm secures his seventh PGA TOUR title, moves to No. 6 on the FedExCup and draws closer to Scottie Scheffler in his quest to return to the top spot on the Official World Golf Ranking.

He also earns his second title as a dad, the 2021 U.S. Open being his first. At Torrey Pines, Kepa was just 2 months old and spent most of the post-victory celebration in his mom’s arms.

This time, Kepa played during the trophy ceremony, running around No. 18 green as a smiling Kelley kept a watchful eye.

Rahm is known as one of the game’s foremost competitors. He admits to frustration at times on the course, and sometimes the chatter inside the ropes can be sparse, particularly down the stretch in Sunday contention – “we were all pretty quiet that whole round,” said playing partner Kitayama, who recorded a career-best runner-up finish, moving to No. 61 on the FedExCup and essentially clinching a Playoffs berth in his first season as a TOUR member.

But for his competitive strength, Rahm proves equally adept at switching gears once the scorecard is signed.

“He’s very good at separating work and the personal life,” said Hayes, a veteran caddie who has worked alongside Rahm since 2016. “When that last putt drops and he signs his scorecard, he kind of turns into ‘dad’ mode. It definitely helps having his family there; it helps keep his mind off it.

“Where some guys, if they don’t have family or they don’t have wives, they go back and sit in the room by themselves, and it’s the same. It can be lonely out here, so for him to have that, it’s a benefit.”

Several players wait to have families until their careers have moved well past the peak stage. By all statistical and aesthetic measures, Rahm has all the tools to remain among the game’s elite for years to come.

With a second son expected this summer, the Rahm family can be expected to enjoy many more greenside victory celebrations.

“He’s a family guy,” said Hayes. “He’s a wonderful husband and dad. I think it’s so cool that he’s getting this experience at this point in his career. For him to be in the prime of his career and continue to be in his prime, and to be able to share that with his wife and kids, is going to be really cool.”

Upon walking off the green Sunday at Vidanta Vallarta, one of Rahm’s first thoughts was that he had again qualified for the Sentry Tournament of Champions this coming January. He grew enthused at the prospect of flying to Hawaii a week early and spending some vacation time with his growing family before the 2023 golf year commences.

Inside the ropes, Rahm doesn’t waver from the desire to extract as much from his game as he possibly can. Even in his winner’s press conference, he thought back to an 11-foot birdie try on the par-3 17th hole Sunday. He thought it was center-cut the entire way, but it turned at the final moment and missed on the left edge.

After a hard-fought winning par on the par-5 18th – he missed the fairway left and had to lay up with the ball sitting down and below his feet – he was able to exhale and also reflect on the lessons he hopes to impart on his kids.

“Be more like mom,” he laughed. “That’s the general norm. I know I have my good qualities, but she’s a heck of a person. For my part, to never give up, always be positive. I think that’s one of my traits.

“Yes, I might seem frustrated sometimes. Yes, I might let some anger out and I might say some things, but I’m always hopeful and I’m always positive. That was key today. I never lost my approach and my confidence, and that’s why I got it done.”

And when Kepa watches back tape of the first time he was able to move around a trophy presentation on his own, he’ll be able to learn from that perspective as well.

THIRD ROUND

VIDANTA VALLARTA, Mexico – Professional golfers often speak of how a tournament “begins on the back nine Sunday.”

The expression refers to the inevitable nerves that arrive on an event’s final day. Subconsciously, a player knows one more crisp iron shot or holed putt can make all the difference.

Whether a player is among the game’s elite or vying for a career-changing first title, those nerves are equal-opportunity.

“Whenever you’re in that position, there’s just something going through your body,” said three-time PGA TOUR winner Cameron Champ, who enters the final round of this week’s Mexico Open at Vidanta in a tie for second at 13-under, two back of leader Jon Rahm. “The more you’re in it, the more you kind of understand it and can try and control it to a certain degree.

“You’ve just got to embrace the nerves and excitement. It’s not bad nerves, it’s not bad excitement. Just try to control them the best you can, and knowing all the other guys will be just as nervous as you, no matter how many wins they have.”

Earlier this week, Rahm thought back to his first PGA TOUR event, which came in Mexico at the 2014 World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba. When asked to offer advice to players making the first start of their career, he was direct.

“If you’re playing, play to win,” he said on Tuesday.

Rahm has channeled his own advice, carding rounds of 64-66-68 to stand 15-under through three rounds in Mexico, two clear of Champ and Kurt Kitayama. The Spaniard shared the lead after the opening round, and he has held the solo lead after each of Friday and Saturday competition.

The collection of players near the top of the leaderboard at Vidanta Vallarta, in the Mexico Open’s first playing as an official PGA TOUR event in a history dating to 1944, represents an eclectic mix of career stages.

Rahm stands No. 2 on the Official World Golf Ranking and has won six TOUR titles, including last year’s U.S. Open.

Champ has won three TOUR titles, one in each of the past three seasons, and is known for having one of the TOUR’s most high-powered games when he is clicking on all cylinders.

The remaining four of the top six players on the leaderboard – Kurt Kitayama (T2) and a trio of players sharing fourth in Davis Riley, Patrick Rodgers and Nate Lashley – combine for just one TOUR win, Lashley’s triumph at the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Kitayama has competed on tours all over the world, with two DP World Tour titles to his credit. After earning his first TOUR card via the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Finals, he is playing his first season as a TOUR member, highlighted by a third-place finish at The Honda Classic in February.

“You might grip the club harder, swing a little harder,” said Kitayama of final-round contention. “There are a lot of things. You feel jitters that come into play, and you have to learn how to calm yourself down.”

Riley gained experience in the spotlight at last month’s Valspar Championship in Tampa, holding the 54-hole lead en route to a playoff loss to Sam Burns.

The University of Alabama alum won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour – including the 2020 Panama Championship, also in a Spanish-speaking country. He’ll aim to channel those successes Sunday, as well as the fortitude displayed in battling back from a triple bogey on the fifth hole of his final round in Tampa, playing his final 13 holes in 2-under to earn a spot in the playoff.

“Never count yourself out of a tournament,” said Riley after signing for a third-round 67 at Vidanta Vallarta. “Just stick around, just keep playing. Just play golf, and even if you have a hiccup here and there, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of the tournament.”

Rodgers is making his 208th career PGA TOUR start; he has recorded five top-three finishes but is yet to secure a title. Like Riley, he also won on the Korn Ferry Tour in a Spanish-speaking country (2015 Astara Golf Championship), as did Lashley at the 2017 Corales Puntacana Championship, then a Korn Ferry Tour stop.

After asserting himself as a consistent TOUR pro for nearly a decade, Rodgers needed to return to the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Finals to better his status. He successfully finished inside The Finals 25 and carried that momentum to the fall portion of the TOUR schedule, where he recorded two top-six showings in his first three starts.

The Indiana native, 29, said the Spanish-speaking setting allows him to concentrate 100 percent on his job – which Sunday will be to properly handle the emotions down the stretch.

“Something about maybe being out of the (United States) or being in a spot that’s slightly unfamiliar, it helps me focus on the task at hand,” Rodgers said Saturday. “I’m all business this week; it’s all about golf and playing the best way that I can. Obviously we’re in a spectacular destination, just like Bogota was, so it’s easy to enjoy myself while I’m here.”

For professional golfers, enjoyment can correlate with the opportunity to feel those back-nine Sunday nerves. The pre-work has proven effective, and it’s time for the athletic instincts to kick in.

The chasers are lined up in pursuit of Rahm, who aims to improve on a 1-for-6 record of converting a 54-hole lead or co-lead on TOUR.

Rahm was asked Saturday evening if he expects to feel any differently when he wakes up Sunday morning as the one being chased.

“Obviously you’re aware that you’re leading,” Rahm said, “and you want to do it better. But essentially, it’s the same.”

Until the inevitable unpredictability sets in.

SECOND ROUND

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — Jon Rahm faced the wind and handled it just as well Friday in the Mexico Open at Vidanta, making eight birdies on his way to a 5-under 66 that staked the world’s No. 2 player to a two-shot lead over Alex Smalley.

Rahm birdied all four of the par 5s, including the 18th hole at Vallarta Vidanta with a 4-iron from light rough to just short of the green, a pitch to 6 feet and one last putt.

He was at 12-under 130 going into the weekend.

Smalley was playing on the other side of the course, where he did most of his work. The highlight was holing out from 165 yards on the par-4 third hole for eagle. He had eagle chances on consecutive holes late in his round, two-putting from 35-feet on the par-5 sixth and driving the 291-yard seventh hole to 30 feet for another two-putt birdie.

He finished with a 66 and will be in the final group with Rahm.

Rahm was two shots higher then his opening round, in which the Spaniard never had to deal with the wind until the final four holes. This was one felt even better.

“I feel like I might be a little bit more satisfied with today’s score than yesterday,” Rahm said. “Yesterday I felt like I was really under control and relatively speaking stress free. Today was a bit more of a grind, but still a really good round of golf.”

Patrick Reed ran off two late birdies and was poised to close out his round with a third in a row until a pedestrian pitch from just short of the green on the par-5 18th. He had to settle for par and a 66, leaving him in a large group that was three shots behind.

Cameron Champ, who played alongside Rahm and handled the wind with his penetrating ball flight, had a 66 to reach 9-under 133. Champ and Reed were joined by Trey Mullinax (69), Adam Long (66) and Andrew Novak (67).

Rahm played a superb shot from a waste area well right of the green on the par-5 14th to about 3 feet. What really pleased him was his 6-iron on the par-3 ninth, over water while trying to navigate the gusts.

“The 6-iron was perfect. And having 3 feet for birdie there, it’s a huge bonus,” Rahm said. “I think my iron game was really, really good today. It was really under control and in those windy conditions I was hitting it really, really solid so. I was never really too surprised where my ball was ending up and I was always in a good position.”

Smalley, a Duke graduate in his rookie year on the PGA TOUR, had a runner-up finish in the Dominican Republic a month ago. Both courses have the same kind of grass on the greens, and Smalley said he picked up plenty of experience playing in the final group on the weekend, starting with the belief he can compete on TOUR.

He also was a quick study on the wind, that made some of the par 4s more difficult to reach than some of the 600-yard par 5s.

Smalley had a 5-iron for his second shot into the 608-yard sixth. Two holes later, he had 3-wood for his second shot on the 515-yard eighth hole, barely reaching the front of the green. That led to a beautiful lag from 65 feet for a par.

“That’s what happens when you have winds that are gusting 25,” Smalley said. “I was able to keep the ball in play and was able to get out of those holes that were playing really long, and happy I’m done with them.”

Scott Brown, Jonathan Byrd and Davis Riley, who lost in a playoff at the Valspar Championship earlier this year, were in the group at 8-under 134, four shots behind.

The cut was at 2-under 140. Among those making it to the weekend were the Ortiz brothers of Guadalajara — Alvaro shot 69 and was at 5-under 137, while Carlos, a PGA TOUR winner, had a 69 and was at 3-under 139. Abraham Ancer, part of 10 Mexican players in the field and No. 20 in the world ranking, had a 69 and made the cut on the number.

The task for everyone is chasing Rahm, going for his first victory of the year.

“I’ve been playing really good,” he said. “I can’t really complain about anything I’m doing right now, so hopefully I can keep that good ball-striking going and keep rolling it the way I have.”

SECOND ROUND

VIDANTA VALLARTA, Mexico – Anytime Jon Rahm arrives in Mexico, he feels a trace of nostalgia.

As an Arizona State junior, Rahm made his PGA TOUR debut at the 2014 World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba. He missed the cut, including a penalty in the second round for the “only time in my life where I made a practice swing chipping and the ball moved,” but looks back fondly on the week. He channeled the experience into his next TOUR start, finishing T5 at the WM Phoenix Open the following February.

Fast forward seven-plus years, and Rahm is among the game’s elite. He’s a six-time TOUR winner, including the 2021 U.S. Open, and he stands No. 2 on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Among the milestones eluding Rahm: a title in Mexico. He has been close, with two third-place showings at the WGC-Mexico Championship at Chapultepec.

Rahm aims to change that. He has started strong at the Mexico Open at Vidanta, the event’s first appearance on the PGA TOUR schedule in a history dating back to 1944.

Propelled by a chip-in birdie at the par-3 13th hole – his fourth of the day – and an eagle at the short par-4 seventh, Rahm opened in 7-under 64 at Vidanta Vallarta, sharing the opening-round lead on a sun-kissed Thursday on the western Mexico coast.

Also carding 64 were Jonathan Byrd, Brendon Todd, Trey Mullinax, Bryson Nimmer and Kurt Kitayama.

Rahm was asked early in the week about how he game-plans for a new course, and he replied that “plan A is to hit driver everywhere.”

With generally wide fairways, Vidanta Vallarta lends itself to aggressive play, matching Rahm’s ethos.

“Really comfortable off the tee,” said Rahm after completing his opening round Thursday. “Not like it’s ever bad, but today felt especially comfortable. It’s not the most demanding course off the tee, besides 10 and maybe 1 … you’re not really in real danger of being in bad position, but even though it’s generous, when I’m hitting shots with the trajectory and the ball flight that I wanted, it just gives me more confidence for every other shot.”

Rahm hasn’t missed a cut on TOUR since the Fortinet Championship in September, but he also hasn’t won on TOUR since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June. He admitted this week that his game hasn’t been at its best, numbers-wise, but said he feels confident about his prospects for the coming months.

Perhaps a return to the country of his first TOUR start will provide the proper boost for a return to the winner’s circle.

With one round in the books at the Mexico Open, he’s on pace to do just that.

“There’s no trick; you have to go out there and try to win,” Rahm said this week of advice he would give to players making their TOUR debut. “Don’t come trying to make the cut. If you’re playing, play to win. If not, don’t play. I think that is the mindset they should have.

“If they’re invited, they’re probably good enough to be out here, so just believe what you can do and try to win.”

This weekend, Rahm will aim to channel his own perspective.

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