LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA – Hours after delivering a pair of power-punch birdie putts on the 17th and 18th greens to overtake Louis Oosthuizen and fulfill his destiny as a major champion, Jon Rahm was still not sure whether or not he could call himself US Open champion.
“I'm still thinking there might be a playoff,” Rahm said. “I've been scarred before.”
Two weeks after an almost certain victory and $1.7 million cheque was taken from him by a positive Covid-19 test after staking himself to a six-shot 54-hole lead at the Memorial Tournament, Rahm was on the right side of karma at his favorite place in the world. He won his first PGA Tour event here in 2017 and proposed to his wife, Kelley, on one of the trails below Torrey Pines’ golf courses.
On Sunday, Rahm drained a 24-foot birdie on 17 to catch Oosthuizen at 5-under and then buried an 18-footer on from the opposite direction as Tiger Woods 13 years ago, eliciting a similar roar as he punched the air to cap a final-round 67 on the South Course at Torrey Pines to post 6-under 278 four holes ahead of Oosthuizen.
When Oosthuizen came up a stroke short for his second consecutive and sixth overall major runner-up finish, Rahm was the fourth Spanish golfer to win a major and the first to win the U.S. Open.
“I knew my time was coming,” said Rahm, adding this win was for his muse Seve Ballesteros. “I have a hard time explaining what happened because I can’t believe I made the last two putts.” Oosthuizen needed to make up a stroke down the stretch with the easiest closing hole in major championship history on deck, but he didn’t get the chance after pulling his tee shot on the 17th in the hazard and missing a 10-foot putt to make bogey. His bid to force a playoff with eagle on 18 was smothered by the rough off the tee and he settled for birdie.
“I played good. Just fell a little short again,” said Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion. “It was Jon played a great round of golf – 4-under today on that golf course is a really good score. I could see early on what was happening with the leaderboard at the end and knew that I need to push at the end to do something. Errant tee shot on 17 just cost me, but all in all, I thought that I fought really well to stay in it and just fell short again.”
Oosthuizen admitted frustration but didn’t lament his strategy down the stretch.
“No, look, it's frustrating. It's disappointing,” he said. “I'm playing good golf, but … winning a major championship is not just going to happen. You need to go out and play good golf. I played good today, but I didn't play good enough.
“I took the tee shot on at 17, and I knew it was a crucial hole for me to take it on and give myself a birdie opportunity. I didn't pull it off, but standing on that tee again, I'll probably do the same thing, taking a driver and taking the shot on. I feel like I had my shots, I went for it, and that's what you have to do to win majors. Sometimes it goes your way, and other times it doesn't.”
Things seemed destined to break Rahm’s way this week as he lurked just underneath the lead all week and pounced when it mattered. He nearly took himself out when his tee shot on the par-5 ninth hole seemed to be sailing out-of-bounds left, but instead, he was given relief from a boundary fence and very nearly eagled the hole instead of taking absorbing a double or worse. His birdie there was followed by a string of steady pars until he erupted for those huge left-to-right birdie putts that brought a thunderous response from him and the galleries.
“Last time I won here, I finished birdie-eagle, and I knew I could finish strong again,” he said. “I knew history could get close to repeating itself. I was aware hitting that putt. I stayed patient all day. I hadn't made many long putts all week. I made one on Thursday on 14, but that's the kind of putts I like. I've made a couple of long left-to-righters in the past in some clutch moments, and I was able to get two more on the last two holes.”
What was shaping up to be a thoroughbred race to the finish – with 10 players within one shot of the lead at one point – devolved quickly into a demolition derby.
Rory McIlroy was just a shot off the lead through 10 when he made bogey-double bogey on 11 and 12 to fall out of the chase and he eventually finished tied for seventh at 1-under. Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau had gone 30 holes without a bogey and held a share of the lead at 5-under through 10 before imploding, playing the last eight holes in 8-over including a gruesome double on the par-5 13th and even worse quadruple-bogey on 17 to shoot 77 and finished T26.
“I didn't get off the rails at all,” DeChambeau insisted. “It's golf. People will say I did this or did that, and it's just golf. I've had plenty of times where I hit it way worse than today and I won. It's just one of those things where I didn't have the right breaks happen at the right time. I could have easily gotten to 7-, 8-under today. I just wasn't fully confident with the golf swing and just got a little unlucky in the rough and a couple other places.”
Brooks Koepka made a run from starting the day five shots back of the lead at even par to get as low as 4-under after birdies at 13 and 15, but a sloppy bogey from the bunker on the par-3 16th derailed his hopes of posting an early number in the clubhouse. His birdie try at 17 slid past the cup and he missed a short par putt on 18 to fall short of Harris English’s posted 3-under finish.
Koepka tied for fourth at 2-under with Collin Morikawa and Italy’s Guido Migliozzi.
Other 54-hole co-leaders Russell Henley and Mackenzie Hughes both fell off the pace. Henley started backing up with three consecutive bogeys on 6-8 while Hughes hopes were dashed when his ball stuck in a tree on the par-3 11th hole.
Paul Casey and Morikawa each had bids wrecked by doubles on the back side as well.
As heavyweights self-destructed by the handful, only Oosthuizen and Rahm got the breaks and avoided the crashes to see who would be the last man standing.
In the end, it had to be Rahm.
“This one is very, very incredible, very hard to believe, that this story can round up and end up so good,” said Rahm. “It almost feels like it's a movie that's about to end and I'm going to wake up soon. With the setback I had a couple of weeks ago, to end up like this, it's incredible. I do love Torrey Pines, and Torrey Pines loves me.”