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Jon Rahm triumphed as his rivals suffered, and major championship golf delivered again

Jon Rahm of Spain celebrates after winning his first major title. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Some people don’t enjoy major tournament golf. I have never understood that. Do they know what they’re missing?

Nothing matches golf for the proximity of glory and gory. Few days show that like Sunday at the U.S. Open, where Jon Rahm beat hard-luck Louis Oosthuizen by a single shot on the South Course at Torrey Pines for his first win in a major championship.

Both men gained in stature. But strewn behind them, embarrassed or mortified to varying degrees, were many of the greatest players in the world, including Bryson DeChambeau, who shot a 44 on the back nine; his feuding buddy, Brooks Koepka, who collapsed on the last three holes to blow his final chance; and Rory McIlroy, who came apart, as has become his habit, when faced with a chance for his fifth major title.

Others in the top 20 who will leave with bruises — almost all of them on the inside, where the worst damage occurs in golf — include the top two players in the world, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, who backed up the instant they could sniff the lead, as well as brilliant young Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele.

Did we forget any sufferers?

Jon Rahm has his major title after surviving everything the U.S. Open threw at him

How can you not love a sport in which a burly Rahm and a compact little Oosthuizen can duel along the Pacific cliffs while, everywhere you look, drives are landing in canyons, iron shots are getting stuck in tree branches and, at one point, police were tackling a fan, who had been practicing his own shots with ball and club in the rough, in the middle of the 13th fairway?

Golf — dull and predictable, right?

No. Golf — in the majors — is exciting, full of glamour shots and utter pratfalls and almost utterly unpredictable.

For one day, let’s give the ancient game its due, at least in its major championship, major misery version.

In the NFL, the New England Patriots dominated the league for almost 20 years. In the NBA, LeBron James has sucked the air out of the room for almost 15 springs. In MLB, a $200 million payroll doesn’t always win, but it sure helps. Or, recently, look at men’s tennis: Three stars — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have monopolized 59 Grand Slam titles.

How can you not be magnetized by a game in which a player who missed his past five cuts — Mackenzie Hughes — could be tied for the 54-hole lead? Or where, with nine holes to play, there might be any of a dozen winners, with wildly different narratives across the whole spectrum from superstar to nobody?

For major titles, what this U.S. Open provided is the rule, not the exception. One person triumphs, often with shots that send tingles up every spine and will be replayed for decades. This time, Rahm sank left-to-right-breaking 24-foot and 18-foot birdie putts at the 71st and 72nd holes, respectively, to snatch the prize from Oosthuizen, who was left to wonder where he let that one vital shot’s difference slip away.

“I can’t even believe I made the last two putts. And I’m the first Spaniard to win the U.S. Open. This was definitely for [the late] Seve [Ballesteros]. . . . He wanted to win this one most of all,” said Rahm who, at 26, is one of the most articulate, thoughtful players in golf. And that’s when speaking a second language.

Ballesteros, the inspiration of Spanish major tournament champions who followed him — such as José Maria Olazábal and Sergio Garcia — was always told that his wild driving would block him in the U.S. Open; as was his way, Ballesteros took it to heart and, to a degree, resented it, even as he acknowledged its truth and joked about his driver.

But his golfing countrymen, knowing his fierce leadership in the Ryder Cup, where he helped turn the tide in Europe’s favor for a generation, knew he wanted a U.S. Open, too.

Feel a pang, if you will, for the spunky, modest, meticulous little Oosthuizen, who seemingly could fit in the bag of the long-belting, 6-foot-2, 220-pound Rahm. The 38-year-old South African, the owner of a bizarre distinction — the career runner-up Grand Slam, with six second-place finishes in majors, including at the PGA Championship last month — has been riding a second wind, or perhaps a last-gasp effort, to win a second major.

At least he lost with relative dignity, sinking clutch par putts at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to stay one shot back of Rahm, the world’s third-ranked player. Oh, sure, Oosthuizen, ranked 18th in the world, blundered badly, hooking his tee shot on the 17th hole into a canyon, effectively ending the chase, when he had — roughly — 3,000 miles of room to miss without penalty to the right.

The flip side of the emotional power of golf in majors is the degree of mortification for those who lose. Every year, at least a half-dozen players not only fail to win but suffer collapses that shake confidence for years or even derail the psychological ability to cope with major-event pressure for the rest of their careers.

How soon will DeChambeau, for all his show of power, brains and outward self-confidence, overcome the 8-over-par 44 — a disintegration of swing, judgment and composure — that he endured on the back nine? He had just played 30 straight holes without a bogey to position himself for a U.S. Open repeat.

But, after his bogeys at the 11th and 12th holes, it will be hard to forget — and harder for DeChambeau to erase — how he fell apart with a seven at the par-5 13th, after his foot slipped on his lash at a drive, then made a ludicrous, where-is-a-hole-to-crawl-into 8 at the 17th hole.

For now, it seems DeChambeau, the science-smart but socially awkward class nerd, may be on the wrong end of the gamesmanship with Koepka, the cool jock with a hard streak who can get under skins.

Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau’s budding beef reaches it’s-growing-the-game territory

Koepka staggered to the house, bogeying the 16th and the easy par-5 18th to end his last chance. Maybe both top-10 players would do better to stop teasing about who has a better six-pack or more major trophies at home.

When you act cocky and foolish, as both Koepka and DeChambeau have, then claim you are doing it, in Koepka’s words, to “grow the game” by having a public feud for new fans to watch, you will attract not more fans but more cocky fools.

Ex-caddie-turned-commentator Jim “Bones” Mackay gave perhaps the most unusual on-course report in golf annals on a “disturbance” as DeChambeau played the 13th hole.

“A ‘gentleman’ ran past me. He had a golf club and a couple of balls in hand. He hit a few shots,” Mackay said. “The cops came out to get him. . . . He’s now facedown in the middle of the 13th fairway.”

Meanwhile, Bryson and Brooks collapsed in the clutch. So how’s this growing the game by encouraging stupid fans working out for you guys?

For Rahm, everything is working out beautifully. Three weeks ago, he led the Memorial by six shots after three rounds. Then he tested positive for the coronavirus, despite having gotten a vaccine shot earlier in the week, and had to withdraw.

Instead of crying foul, Rahm simply said he should have taken the shot earlier.

“I’m a big believer in karma,” he said. “After what happened a couple of weeks ago, I stayed really positive, knowing big things were coming. I didn’t know what it was going to be.”

The Torrey Pines setting, he said, “reminds me a lot of back home. The coastline, the weather, the temperature — it just resonates with me.”

Later, he probably said it even more eloquently in Spanish.

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