Jon Rahm plays through undercurrent of rivalry at Augusta

Jon Rahm plays through undercurrent of rivalry at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jon Rahm wasn’t born yet when Jose Maria Olazabal won his first Masters in 1994. When “Ollie,” as he’s affectionately called, won his second in 1999, Rahm was only five years old. Golf didn’t run in his family. There was no expectation that he would follow in Ollie’s footsteps or Seve Ballesteros‘ or Sergio Garcia‘s.

But as the par putt dropped on the 18th hole and Rahm became the fourth Masters champion from Spain, Olazabal stood greenside, a wide smile on his face, his arms ready to embrace the No. 1 player in the world. Both thought of the late Spaniard Ballesteros — Masters winner in 1980 and 1983 — whose birthday fell on this very day.

“That one was for Seve,” Rahm said. “He was helping up there.”

All day long, the chants of “Vamos Rhambo!” and “Vamos Jon!” followed the Spaniard and served as reminders of his heritage. But in the shade underneath the Augusta trees, other conversations about Rahm’s allegiance were being had too.

“Anybody but Brooks!” yelled a patron who walked past the 3rd green scoreboard and cheered when he saw Rahm had erased Brooks Koepka‘s two-shot lead after the fifth hole Sunday. Another group of people near the sixth green discussed how they couldn’t root for Koepka even if they weren’t Rahm fans because of LIV Golf.

“I lost respect for that,” a relative of an Augusta member said.

If there was any doubt who the Augusta crowd was rooting for Sunday, Rahm’s par save in the face of Koepka’s bogey on the sixth hole elicited one of the biggest cheers of the day. Rahm had the lead and he wouldn’t give it up for the rest of the tournament.

“I kept hearing, ‘Seve! Seve! Seve! Do it for Seve!’ I heard that the entire back nine,” Rahm said. “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.”

Rahm’s win wasn’t just for Spain, but in the face of the poetic duel this year’s tournament set up between him and Koepka in the final round, it was an inevitable next chapter in golf’s ongoing battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. Coming into the week, players like Joaquin Niemann had added fuel to the fire.

“I think it’s going to be more fun knowing that they hate us,” Niemann said. “Then go to the majors and beat them.”

As much as most players tried to downplay it, the week at Augusta had an undercurrent of rivalry running through it. Every player was asked about it. Cameron Smith admitted the LIV fields weren’t as strong as the PGA Tour’s. Rory McIlroy all but said he got along with some of those players and not with others. Sergio Garcia lashed out at the media for asking questions about the topic. And of course, Greg Norman touted a team celebration on the 18th green should a LIV player emerge victorious. But LIV players like Smith balked at the notion, and others only took the opportunities in interviews to reiterate that, just because they had left for another tour, it didn’t mean they couldn’t compete at major championships anymore.

“They’re just talking that we don’t have the top guys,” Niemann said Sunday. “But I think that anybody could win these tournaments.”

“I guess they don’t suck,” Harold Varner III said of his LIV teammates. “I think it’s good for golf. Don’t think about any tours, just play golf and see how they stack up.”

There was something about how well most LIV players performed at Augusta this week that signals where the game may be headed. Majors could be the only place we see the best of both worlds — the best of the PGA Tour against LIV players playing their best. The fracturing of golf isn’t exactly good for the sport, but having clear narratives and polarizing figures descend on the game’s biggest stages for one week isn’t going to hurt it either.

That notion was the main appeal of the Koepka-Rahm duel, a perfect battle to settle the winner of the sport’s biggest prize after 12 of 18 LIV players had made the cut and three finished inside the top 10. But as Rahm surged, Koepka faltered and Phil Mickelson couldn’t do enough to mount a comeback, the chances of a LIV winner at Augusta evaporated. Norman, who was not invited to the Masters this year, did not get his 18th green wish. Instead, Rahm’s rampant run this year continued.

“I’ve wanted to win it ever since I thought about golf and what being a champion would be,” Rahm said.

“He represents golf in the perfect way,” Olazabal said of his countryman.

Rahm is a fascinating figure in this ongoing strife. He, like many players, was approached by LIV with an offer in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But he refused. At last year’s U.S. Open, he explained his thinking, noting that his family was already financially set. Money wasn’t going to sway him.

“I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons,” Rahm said. “I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

Since that point, Rahm has cemented his position as one of the game’s best. He had won three times this year on the PGA Tour before arriving in Augusta. After the victory Sunday, Rahm talked at length about how meaningful it was to him to continue Spain’s legacy of winning at majors and winning at the Masters.

“There’s got to be something here about having a Spanish passport,” Rahm said. “I don’t know, there’s something about the grounds that transmits into all of us.”

Ultimately, Rahm — much like Koepka — is less interested in being used as a pawn in golf’s tour war and more interested in simply winning. But in the current state of the game, a win — especially when the alternative was Koepka or Mickelson winning at Augusta — has undeniable resonance. In fact, after Scottie Scheffler draped the green jacket over Rahm late Sunday night, a gleeful Jay Monahan was seen hugging and congratulating Rahm’s dad, Edorta, who nearly didn’t make the trip to Augusta to watch his son. Rahm was glad he did.

Perhaps no one had a bigger smile after the final round than Edorta. He carried a Masters-branded drawstring on his back with Spanish words written in Sharpie by his son to his mother, who was not at Augusta this week.

“Gracias por ser quien tu eres. Te quiero.”

“Thank you for being who you are. I love you.”

Moments before Rahm slipped on the jacket and gave his victory speech with the sun dipping over the horizon, Olazabal remained underneath the oak tree taking questions from journalists in both Spanish and English.

“It’s funny how these things work,” a smiling Olazabal said. “Sometimes the stars align for a wonderful script.”

It all seemed like an ending that was too perfect for a tumultuous week that could have gone in so many different directions. Rahm was now going to be invited to play the Masters for the rest of his career. Koepka, on the other hand, would now have to finish in the top 12 next year to be able to return to Augusta. His exemption is running out.

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