PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Jon Rahm’s all-world talent was on full display Saturday at TPC Sawgrass, where he shot a third-round 64, one shot shy of tying the course record, to grab the solo 54-hole lead. It was the type of round in which Rahm looked unbeatable, despite there being no such thing in professional golf. That said, when he’s on, the only thing that can stop him is himself.
The 24-year-old Spaniard has allowed that to happen many times, sometimes on the biggest stages. It has earned him the not-so coveted reputation of being the temper-tantrum guy, throwing his toys when things don’t go his way. This has certainly cost him in his career, especially during the 2017 majors, though he seemed to have turned a corner with a pair of top fives last year at the Masters and the PGA Championship.
He may have really turned a corner on Saturday at the Players, where he stood in the 14th fairway in full attack mode at six under par. After birdies at numbers nine and 10, an eagle at 11 and another birdie at the 13th, he striped a 307-yard drive at 14 and then went for the flag. What he thought was a great shot ended up over the green, leaving him a tricky up-and-down for par to a front left pin. A bad break any way you cut it.
The old Rahm might lose his mind, question why the golf gods were smiting him, lose focus, make a bogey and kill the momentum. But the new Rahm claims he’s a changed man, and he proved it by saving par and then closing his round in style. He made two more birdies, including one at the 17th after scaring the hole with his tee shot, to finish off a back-nine 30.
“About eight months ago, maybe not that long, I wouldn’t have finished at eight-under,” said Rahm, who was a combined 15 over in his previous two third rounds at the Players. “I think I would have lost my patience on 14 because I actually hit a good shot and ended up way long with that really difficult up-and-down. And then a good tee shot on 15 and a good second shot and it got the worst out of both things. Ended up in the pine straw and then ended up short. I think I would have been a little more frustrated and I might have made both pars, but I don’t think I would have been as relaxed as I was today, and I think that’s what enabled the whole day.”
Call it a turning point, an epiphany, or whatever you like. As long as Rahm believes it, that’s all that matters.
“I definitely feel a difference in myself, and it’s been great to feel that pride of all the work that I’ve done to get to this point, so hopefully I can keep doing it tomorrow.”
If this is the new Rahm, watch out. The old one has already won five times around the world, and his performance at last year’s Masters and PGA Championship indicate that plenty of success in the majors is coming.
“I’ve said it many times, it was a year [last year] of personal growth rather than golf game. It’s been a work in progress of many years to get to this point, and it’s hard to do when you’re playing highly competitive golf. It’s very hard to do. So I can’t attribute it to one thing because I worked on many, many things slowly, and this is what I called earlier a midterm of hopefully it’s a very good final project.”
The Players, while not a major, would be Rahm’s biggest victory to date, and his third on the PGA Tour, the last coming at the 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge. It won’t be handed to him, especially with a host of marquee names like Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy giving chase. Not to mention the weather forecast, which calls for sub-60 degree temperatures and rain, the kind of weather that can eliminate a weaker-minded player. If this is the new Jon Rahm, Sunday at the Players will put that theory to the test.