SANDWICH, ENGLAND | In 1926 and again in 1930 Bobby Jones did it. Gene Sarazen did it in 1932 and Ben Hogan in 1953. In 1971 it was the turn of Lee Trevino followed by Tom Watson in 1982 and Tiger Woods in 2000. Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest of all, never did it. Nor did Arnold Palmer nor Gary Player. The Big Three? Huh!
These six men, five professionals and one incomparable amateur, won both the US Open and the Open Championship in the same year. In the few months of summer in 1930 Bobby Jones also won the amateur championships of the US and Great Britain. No wonder gentlemanly Jones remains the ultimate hero of some. In the vernacular of the time, his astonishing achievement was christened “The Impregnable Quadrilateral.” Nowadays, who knows what a quadrilateral is, whether impregnable or not, and winning the modern game’s four biggest prizes is a feat called the Grand Slam, which may be a shorter and snappier description but is imprecise and unromantic.
And so we come to Jon Rahm, the only man at last week’s Open who had a chance to add his name to the foregoing six. It has been some year for him. He was fifth in the Masters, eighth at the PGA, ninth at the Players and he led the Memorial tournament by six strokes after 54 holes before being forced to withdraw because of COVID-19 issues. Then came the US Open where the Spaniard sank putts of indecent length on the 71st and 72nd greens at Torrey Pines in California last month to win.
Having made his way from San Diego to Sandwich, he roamed the fairways of Royal St George’s unable to dismiss thoughts of “What if?”
What if he were to win the Open? He would clasp the handsome trophy in his enormous hands and no doubt give it a kiss. That would mean he had won two major championships within 30 days of one another. It would mean he would become the second Spaniard after Seve Ballesteros, his hero, to take ownership of the claret jug. It would mean he would set off to represent Spain in the Olympics at the end of the month with two of the game’s greatest prizes in his possession.
What if, what if, what if? …
It may be stating the obvious to say that Rahm is a proud Spaniard because so many Spaniards seem to have that wide-eyed passion for their country. Spectators wrapped in Spanish flags were evident in Rahm’s gallery last week. His level of vocal support, while not approaching that for Phil Mickelson, was considerable. The British have taken Rahm to their hearts knowing that on his broad shoulders will depend much of Europe’s success at the Ryder Cup in the US in September.
Rahm did not rush it at Sandwich. He began slowly with a 71 in Thursday’s first round. On Friday afternoon he, Shane Lowry, the defending champion, and Louis Oosthuizen, the leader, played golf that was even more stunning than the weather. Their aggregate score was 16-under par for one round. They had given Royal St George’s a right royal going over.
Rahm has some interesting views for amateur golfers. He believes that beginners should avoid contorting themselves into uncomfortable and perhaps unnatural positions in an attempt to imitate the stars. “Let your body dictate how … you swing,” Rahm said. His golf swing was born of the fact that at birth he had a club right foot that had to be straightened. His right leg was 1½ cm shorter than his left and his right ankle is weak so he cannot put much weight on it.
The swing he has developed, the one that has propelled him to the very summit of the professional game, is short, flat and very powerful. It has a backswing that moves faster than a swooping peregrine falcon and a downswing that sends the ball on its way as if fired from a cannon. It helps that he has the nether regions of a young Jack Nicklaus, haunches that look as broad and powerful as mature tree trunks.
Even from a distance you could see there was an urgency about Rahm as he tried to close on the leaders, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa and Louis Oosthuizen, as they approached the end of the last round of a thrilling Open Championship.
In Rahm’s camp, among those who know him well and smooth his passage around the world, there was a feeling post-Torrey Pines that their man had loosened the floodgates. As they celebrated his first victory in a major championship they thought that having won one major championship Rahm would win more sooner rather than later. These members of Rahm’s inner circle see a growing (and much needed) calmness in Rahm, a characteristic not always present in those whose nature is hot-blooded from birth. They see a maturity in his personality that is beyond his years. He will be 27 in November. And they have nothing but admiration for his golfing skills.
Certainly his play in Sunday’s last round suggested that Rahm is going to challenge the very best for a good many years yet.
If there is an “if only” about his game it is this: If only he could putt better. One observer came in off the course on Sunday afternoon shaking his head at what he had seen: “If only he (Rahm) could have holed some putts he’d have won this thing. He was hitting the ball so well.” This observer knew a thing or two about golfers having himself been a professional golfer and tournament winner on the European Tour.
Even from a distance you could see there was an urgency about Rahm as he tried to close on the leaders, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa and Louis Oosthuizen, as they approached the end of the last round of a thrilling Open Championship. Rahm’s walk seemed a touch quicker. His shoulders, which he rolls from side to side as he walks which may be a relic of his clubfoot, rolled a little more.
He knew it was now or never. He had to go for it. He birdied the 13th. He birdied the 14th. He birdied the 15th and he birdied the 16th. He, who had started the day at 7-under par, was making a thrilling attempt to win the second major championship in a row.
But he ran out of holes and finished third, 11-under par. He did not become the seventh member of that exclusive club with Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. But if finishing third is failure he had failed gloriously while returning to the world ranking of No 1.
“Sometimes I ask too much from myself,” he said. “I will keep improving. This is what motivates me about being No 1 in the world. I know I can improve. This makes me smile. In theory I am again the best golfer in the world and yet I feel I can get even better.”