01 May 2023

David Howell: Dominant Rahm could remain golf’s top dog for a long time

So in the end, drama was delivered in the most unexpected ways at this year’s Masters. Rory McIlroy’s hopes of completing the Grand Slam with a Green Jacket fell to the ground as quickly as the top-heavy pine trees that came crashing down on 17, miraculously sparing the lives of countless patrons. Nobody was physically hurt by this near miss, but we may need to wait a few years to find out if Rory was hurt by his performance. Perhaps he’ll find a way to laugh at how golf has an uncanny knack of serving up the opposite of what one hopes for.

The inclement weather added a layer of intrigue to last month’s edition that we haven’t seen for a few years. In what appeared to be a slightly lop sided draw weather wise, Brooks Koepka had an advantage and a platform to put together two sublime rounds to surge ahead of the latest Spanish superstar. If Seve was the matador, then Jon Rahm is the bull, and with 36 holes left you would want a head start over a bull.

Koepka’s renewed confidence was tested in the pressure cooker of Major Championship golf once more after a two year hiatus that is well documented. At Augusta National this year, he handled himself with aplomb but one got the impression he had just been stuck back together unlike his Spanish rival who has yet to be broken, with not even a hairline crack in sight. Brooks will continue to harden from here one would think, while Rahm could be golf’s top dog for a while now.

It ponders the question, has a player ever four-putted the opening hole of a Major and gone on to win? Well, they have now. The 28-year-old’s performance was so complete and so dominant that we have to go back to Brooks himself in the middle of his Major-winning run to be so sure as to who would turn out the winner. Rahm played in the worst of the weather and was still able to make it a relatively stress-free walk up the final hole. Mind you, if the arm chair fan ever needed a reminder that getting over the winning line in a professional golf tournament is difficult then Rahm, with a  three-shot lead having to hit a provisional off the last after his worst shot of the week is exactly that. Golf is hard, winning the monthly medal is hard if you care and it never gets easier, not if you really want something.

So Ballesteros, Olazábal, Garcia and Rahm make up the four Amigos with Green Jackets in their closets, quite the roster of Spanish talent right there and surely the most successful haul from any country outside of America. Who would have thought Augusta and Spanish hands would continue to be a good mix!

Coming down the golfing scales a notch or two for me personally, Abu Dhabi has just hosted its first two Challenge Tour events as part of a partnership between the Emirates Golf Federation and the DP World Tour. They’re both events that I’m delighted to have taken part in. With 60 invitations available for use across the Challenge Tour schedule this will give a strong leg up for professionals from the UAE to start making their way up the golfing ladder. In what is now a more crowded landscape than ever, the pathway for young professional golfers has never been clearer.

The top twenty players from the Challenge Tour rankings make their way to the DP World Tour where the opportunity to play for the millions on offer is up for grabs. Across a global schedule that spans every continent with prize purses totaling nearly $150 million, it’s quite the carrot dangling below the noses of the UAE’s young golfers. I’ve no doubt that with the facilities on offer in the region it won’t be long before we are seeing golfers from the Middle East make their mark on the world stage.

The slow play debate has reared its head once again after the Masters and Hilton Head whereby a certain player was name checked somewhat harshly both weeks. Whilst Patrick Cantlay is certainly no speed freak, a little wider context is needed when discussing round times on Tour. During round four at the Masters all players waited on all holes on the back nine because the course was full. A two-tee start with too many groups will do that. When the highway is full the traffic backs up, and some adjust their speed to the traffic, while others are heavy on the gas and the brakes. That’s just the way it is.

Sure, golf is a slow watch. It’s the nature of the beast, but how slow is dependent on the course. For instance, at the 2021 Open Championship the last three ball on Friday took a smidgen over four and a half hours, and that’s with 153 players having already navigated their way around a Major Championship course. That’s pretty good going at the end of a long day, behind every ruling and ball search. Also during that event, the final group on Sunday of Collin Morikawa and Louis Oosthuizen took three hours 40 minutes with the former on his way to victory. Players adjust to the speed of the course in general and the size of the field. Clearly some players take too long and it makes them boring to watch, unless they are filled with charisma and star quality which is a combination rarer than a bladed one iron.

My suggestion to speed things up a little would be getting rid of the rule allowing players to line up their ball on the putting greens. Personally I would go for this change in professional golf as a few seconds here and there would improve the flow of things a little, but good luck in making this alteration. The safety blanket of the line on the ball is now so ingrained the players would hate it, which is probably a great reason to go ahead with it then!

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