Jon Rahm at 26 grasped the major title many golf intellectuals had pegged for him for a few years running, becoming the first U.S. Open winner from Spain while hailing from that northern coast that also honed Severiano Ballesteros and José María Olazábal. He stayed afloat on a leader board from which a slew of virtuosos sank, and then he curled in left-to-right birdie putts of 24 feet on No. 17 and 18 feet on No. 18. Once that last one slid in on the right side, got him to 6 under par and coaxed the kind of roar the game has missed, Rahm had ended on a tidy seven pars and then two birdies as the only player in the six closing groups to play the back nine in bogey-freedom.
“I don’t know. At some point it will hit me,” Rahm said a while later. “I’m still thinking there might be a playoff. I’ve been scarred before.”
He long since had signed the gleaming 67 of his scorecard and waited for one last guy to go awry. Way back at No. 15 just then as Rahm’s ink dried, that would be Louis Oosthuizen, the brilliant 38-year-old South African and 2010 British Open dominator whose bouquet of runner-up finishes in majors would reach six strong since 2012, not to mention two in a row this spring. Once Oosthuizen went into the wild and woolly bushes near No. 17 — but not that near — and wound up with a bogey to fall two behind with one to play, he looked destined to lose by one and to say, “You know, the errant tee shot on 17 just cost me,” while Rahm’s path from recent misery looked golden.
It had been some path.
Rahm would be the same guy who led Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial in Ohio by six shots on June 5 when the officials came to get him at No. 18 to tell him he had tested positive for the coronavirus and would have to exit. A week of isolation and desolation followed. A U.S. Open followed that. “I feel like coming in here without having practiced much relaxed me a little bit,” the driven man said. “I thought, you know what, in case I play bad, I have an excuse. I have a bailout in case. I can convince myself, ‘Hey, I had covid.’ ”
He also said, “Very hard to believe the story can round out and end up so good,” after his sixth PGA Tour win and his second at the absurd beauty of Torrey Pines, which handles a regular winter tour stop as well. It became a simple finish to what seemed one complicated Sunday.
The hurly-burly went in two distinctive phases, exhilaration and regurgitation. In the first, a batch of the world’s most accomplished players gathered in a blob of wonder atop the leader board, the bright lights so teeming it could challenge one brain to follow them all. In the second, that same batch plunged with a dispatch near-unanimous, until the same brain might banish some of them from thought and say, Oh yeah, him just moments later.
There they were — defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, 2020 PGA champion Collin Morikawa, four-time major champion Brooks Koepka — and then there they were not. Their careen reached its quintessence when DeChambeau, a full-on threat to repeat after his first 10 holes stretched a bogey-free streak to 30 holes, finally finished No. 17.
He finished that in a quadruple-bogey 8.
He finished it eight shots worse off than not long before.
By then, the leader board looked sparse, well after it had looked like some haughty club with a couple of stragglers. Early on, the 10 players bunched within 5 under par and 3 under par boasted five major winners with 11 major titles.
The less-famous mingled among them only here and there. Third-round co-leader Russell Henley suffered bogeys on Nos. 6 through 8 and faded with a 76. Third-round co-leader Mackenzie Hughes faded, then reemerged, then hit a shot on No. 11 that struck a cart path, bounced up into a tree and stayed there between twigs.
Nearby witnesses raised their cameras to record the novelty, one of the less-traveled ways toward a 77.
Then, as if by some decree of some diabolical committee, all those extraordinary golfers began to sputter like lavish jalopies. The leader board began to look like somebody opened some trap door and left everybody tumbling downward.
DeChambeau reached No. 11 and started making visits into the scruffier vegetation and other places until he had splattered two bogeys and a double across three holes and plunged from a brief lead at 5 under par to a dungeon four shots worse, all of it even before No. 17. “I didn’t get off the rails at all,” he insisted. “It’s just golf.” Morikawa, whose golf doesn’t trade in wretched messes, made a wretched mess of No. 13 in a nightmare of shots rolling back from the front of the green and howling as they flew over said green, a double-bogey 7 the result. “Sometimes,” the wise young man said, “you just hit some bad shots, and it all happened all at the wrong time.”
McIlroy had looked like a wizened owl among the bunch at 32, with nine pars and a birdie on the first 10 holes U.S. Open-style, then three-putted to bogey No. 11 and visited a green-side bunker on his double-bogey tour of No. 12. “I put up a good fight,” he said. Speaking of green-side bunkers, Koepka found them on Nos. 16 and 18, turning 4-under-par contention into 2-under-par sighing. “All in all, I didn’t really have my stuff,” he said.
In all the free-fall, a name suddenly materialized: Harris English. Hello, Mr. English, and nice to see you again after a fourth-place finish last U.S. Open at Winged Foot. When he concluded a week as an afterthought and birdied three of the last five holes, including the final two, from 26 feet and from two on the par-5 No. 18, he stood alone in third at 3 under par, and lucky for him, he could keep that score without having to play any more golf.
Rahm still had golf to play, but he reckoned out loud that 4-3-3-4 across the last four holes would win it, and that did win it. So a putt on No. 17 that went out yonder left and then bent back beautifully right and plunked down, plus a putt on No. 18 Rahm knew was true from its halfway point, did win it.
All the way from his birdie on No. 1, “I knew there was something special in the air,” he said. “I could just feel it. I just knew it,” and that’s even when that air got messy all around.
— Chuck Culpepper