Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2021

Karma On The 17th Green

The best golfers in the world looking to the sky, grimaces on their faces, as shots sail wide of their intended targets or putts slide past holes.  It must be Sunday at the U.S. Open.  There is often ample reason during our national championship to recall the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” when then-USGA head Sandy Tatum had to answer claims that one year after Johnnie Miller shot 63 in the Open’s final round, the course had been set up with the intent of embarrassing the players.  Tatum’s response that of course there was no such desire did little to convince anyone in the field of a tournament where the winning score was 7-over par.

In recent years, under the leadership of retiring president Mike Davis, the USGA has relented a bit.  Only three of the thirteen Opens since the event last visited the South Course at San Diego’s public Torrey Pines have resulted in a winning score over par.  But that doesn’t mean – except for the ill-advised decision to take the 2016 Open to Erin Hills, a relatively young course that clearly was not ready for its moment on center stage – that a U.S. Open layout is easy.  Fans are usually reminded of that sometime during the final round.

This year, that moment came as the final twosomes were nearing the midpoint of their rounds.  The leader board was appropriately star-studded for a major.  Bryson DeChambeau, on the strength of birdies at the 5th and 8th holes, held a one-shot lead at 5-under par.  But the defending champion was far from in the clear, since the gaggle of players right behind included Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, and Louis Oosthuizen, all major winners, as well as Jon Rahm, the current owner of the unwelcome title of best golfer who hasn’t won a major.

No sooner did the NBC Sports announcers marvel at that impressive lineup than it started to crumble.  DeChambeau’s tee shot on the par-3 11th hole was wide right, leaving him with a difficult chip from deep rough.  He did well to put his ball a dozen feet past the hole, but the par-saving putt was wide right from the start.  The bogey was DeChambeau’s first in thirty-five holes, but his day was about to get much, much worse.  He bogeyed the next hole, added a double-bogey on the 13th, and capped the worst ever nine-hole score of his professional career with a quadruple-bogey on the 17th, where it looked very much like he had all but quit trying.  The ugly collapse added up to an 8-over 44 on the inward half, which took DeChambeau from the lead to a tie for 26th place.

While the leader’s fall was the most dramatic, it was by no means the only stumble down the stretch.  In the pairing right after DeChambeau’s, McIlroy also bogeyed the 11th with a three-putt, then suffered a championship-ending double-bogey at the 12th.  Playing a few groups ahead, both Koepka and Morikawa had their own sideways moments, playing over par down the stretch. 

That left Oosthuizen and Rahm, the 38-year-old South African who is now eleven years removed from his Open Championship win at St. Andrews, and the 26-year-old Spaniard whose early years on the PGA Tour were notable more for his volatile eruptions on the course than for his play.  But Oosthuizen’s sole major was no fluke, as evidenced by his five runner-up finishes, spread across all four of golf’s most important tournaments, in the years since.  The most recent of those was at last month’s PGA Championship, where Oosthuizen finished tied for 2nd with Koepka, two shots behind Phil Mickelson.  For his part, since reputations die hard Rahm’s early one will probably stick for a while, but in recent years he has matured greatly, while also starting to realize the promise that he’s shown on the golf course since he was ranked as the top amateur in the world in 2015 and 2016.  He arrived at Torrey Pines with five PGA Tour wins and five top-ten finishes in the majors. 

The first of those Tour victories came in 2017 at the Tour’s regular stop in San Diego, the Farmers’ Insurance Open.  What would have been the sixth appeared all but assured two weeks ago when, as the defending champion, he ended the third round of the Memorial Tournament with a six-shot lead.  But as he left the 18th green Rahm was informed by tournament officials that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing him to withdraw.  Rahm knew he had been exposed to an infected individual, and he lamented waiting far too long to be vaccinated.  But he also took the bad news, including the likely loss of the $1.7 million winner’s check, in stride, knowing that he would come out of the mandatory isolation period just in time for the U.S. Open.

So in the end it was those two, the typically phlegmatic Oosthuizen and the newly calm Rahm, matching each other over the final holes, with the South African clinging to a one-shot lead.  That lasted until Rahm stood on the penultimate green, surveying a 24-foot putt for birdie.  Although in order to hole it, he needed to hit it thirty feet or more, so severe was the break.  But Rahm judged the pace and turn perfectly.  He stayed in his putting crouch until the ball fell in the hole, then exulted with a fist pump.  The birdie moved him into a tie, with the reachable par-5 finishing hole remaining.  There Rahm pushed his second shot right, into a greenside bunker, and opted to blast out away from the hole rather than risk a too-speedy shot rolling down the green and into the pond that fronts the putting surface.  But in a virtual replay of the 17th hole, Rahm then curled in another long birdie putt, this one for the lead.

That left only the question of whether Oosthuizen would break out of the tie to end his long string of runner-up finishes at majors or join those who had already stumbled on another U.S. Open Sunday.  The answer came at the 17th, where Oosthuizen’s normal fade trajectory on his drive instead stayed left all the way, ending in a hazard area just off the wide expanse of fairway.  When he was unable to scramble to save par from there, Oosthuizen was left needing an eagle at the last just to tie, and any hope of that ended when his drive just missed the fairway.

Grimaces and gasps, disappointment and doubt, all were plentiful on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean Sunday afternoon.  It was the final round of a U.S. Open after all.  But there were also two big fist pumps on the final two greens, and a victory for a golfer who told the world his belief in karma helped him weather the blow at the Memorial.  When the last of those long putts rolled in, on a day when so many who are so talented stumbled and fell, it was hard to argue with Jon Rahm’s view.  Quite simply, his time at a major had come.

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