With a blustery Portstewart shrouded in a misty rain that was reminiscent of a grey winter’s afternoon in his hometown of Barrika on the stormy Bay of Biscay, the beefy 22-year-old Basque overcame a rules scare to win by six shots after an imperious seven-under-par final round of 65.
It would be churlish to dwell too long on his getting the benefit of the doubt from chief referee Andy McFee when he appeared to replace his ball in the wrong spot on the sixth green after moving his ball marker the width of a putter head to avoid marking in playing partner Daniel Im’s line.
While he moved his marker back, he was out my millimetres in replacing his ball and McFee, having reviewed the video and heard Rahm’s explanation, was satisfied no penalty was warranted following a change in the interpretation of the rule this year.
“I don’t think the ball was put down in exactly the right place, but I think it falls within ‘the player has made a reasonable judgment to put it back’, said McFee. “So that’s why there’s no penalty.”
In joining compatriots Seve Ballesteros, José María Olazabal, and Sergio García on the list of Irish Open immortals, Rahm’s final-round performance was so dominant that it appears to be only a matter of time before he also joins them in the major-winners’ club.
With The Open at Royal Birkdale next week, there was no better time to show form on a links course.
Rahm later confessed that it was his mental strength — tested to the limit when McFee appeared on the 13th tee to discuss the incident at the sixth — that gave him the greatest satisfaction having struggled to keep his emotions in check during last month’s US Open.
Tied for the lead with Im on 17 under par overnight, his round will forever be remembered not for the rules controversy, but for the way he raced away to win by six strokes from Scot Richie Ramsay (65) and England’s Matthew Southgate (66) on a 24-under-par 264, setting the lowest total in the event’s long history, winning in just his eight official European Tour start.
Scotland’s David Drysdale set the clubhouse target at 17 under par when he shot a course-record 63, eventually clinching one of three exemptions into The Open by finishing tied fourth with Ramsay, New Zealand’s Ryan Fox (68), Im (72), and the already exempt Justin Rose (68) on 17 under.
But as Im fell behind with bogeys at the second and third, Rahm grabbed the tournament by the throat with a stroke of genius at the par-five fourth, holing out with a seven-iron from 150 yards for an eagle three to go two shots ahead having been forced to hack out of the rough.
He then extended his lead to five by going to the turn in five-under 31 thanks to birdies at the seventh, eighth, and ninth, before stretching his advantage with another birdie at the 10th.
“I was so proud of how I stayed in the moment step by step, from the first shot pretty much towards till end,” Rahm said after claiming just over €1m to return to the world’s top ten and move to third in the Race to Dubai behind Tommy Fleetwood and Garcia.
“I was in the moment so much. I didn’t think about scores at all. I mean, when I made the putt on 10 and I got to 12 tee, I looked at the scoreboard and I’m like, oh, man, I’m six under for the round, I didn’t even realise. I mean, I had no idea how far ahead I was.”
Not even McFee’s intervention as he walked off the 13th tee could break his will to win.
Showing immense mental strength, he responded to the distraction by rolling in a long-range putt from around 40ft for eagle at the 14th to get to 25 under par, building up an advantage so great that he could afford to finish bogey-birdie-bogey and still win in a canter.
Rahm surprised even himself with his performance, apologised for throwing his clubs twice down the stretch, and vowed to return to Ballyliffin next year to defend the title. “I will be,” he said. “I know it’s a little north, right? A little bit farther north, just a little more rain... I’m sure the next golf course is going to be just as special as this one, so I would not miss that for the world.”
Following in the footsteps not just of the Spanish champions but some of the European greats, gave him huge pleasure.
“It’s kind of somewhat surreal. It’s hard to explain. I just look at it (the trophy) and I see Nick Faldo, I see José María Olazabal, I see Nick Faldo again, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve. That’s a great list of the greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to it, and the last one, Rory McIlroy, it’s so special.”
It was a good final day for many of the Irish with Gavin Moynihan’s closing 64 the highlight, not just for the Donabate man but for the rest of his Irish colleagues.
“I played a practice round with him on Tuesday, and I still owe him a hundred quid actually,” said Shane Lowry, who tied for 20th on 12 under after a 66. “So I have to give it to him now and make it a really good week! He played unbelievable on Tuesday actually. Myself, Gavin, and Paul Dunne played, and he cleaned us out.”
Lowry was unsurprised to see Dunne approach Moynihan and give him the thumbs up as he conducted a TV interview even though he was disgusted with his own play as a closed with a scrappy 71 to share 54th on seven under.
Michael Hoey fired a 67 to share 30th on 11 under, earning €49,909, as Pádraig Harrington slipped to 42nd on nine under after a 71.
The Dubliner was still mightily impressed by Moynihan’s 64 and happy with his own game as he heads to Scotland this week to put the finishing touches to his preparations for The Open.
Dunne finished 54th on seven under after a 71 and immediately gave pal Moynihan the thumbs up, peering in cheekily behind the media scrum to hear all about “Gav’s masterclass”.
But he was disgusted with his own performance, fuming: “I played terrible all week, to be honest.”