Jon Rahm opens with strong Torrey 'defense,' Brooks goes blonde and Rickie slows down at Farmers
Due to his knee injury, Tiger Woods never got the chance to “defend” his 2008 U.S. Open title the next year at Torrey Pines. That dramatic major victory on one leg closed a stretch of five straight wins at the venue: four of the regular PGA Tour stop variety (then known as the Buick Invitational) and then the major.
That’s a run we’ll likely never see again from anyone at any single venue, but Jon Rahm is hoping for another successful week at one of his favorite spots in the world. Seven months removed from his maiden major, Rahm went out and posted the low round of the day on the tougher South Course, the spot where he won last year’s U.S. Open and where he won this Farmers Insurance Open for his first PGA Tour title in 2017. He’s not the overall leader after Wednesday’s first round, but given the scoring differential between the two courses, he should be the favorite, amongst the books and his peers around him on the leader board.
Rahm edged ahead of Luke List for the best opening round on the South thanks to a closing eagle 3 on the par-5 18th, a hole that’s delivered for him twice in a big way in the past. This eagle came largely on the back of a ridiculous 277-yard approach shot that came down off the back of the green and settled 12 feet from the cup.
“It was probably one of the best swings I'll make all year, that 3-wood was absolutely perfect,” Rahm said of the shot. And because it’s so early in the year, maybe that gives the rest of the field hope for the next 11 months? Can he cash in all those swings now?
Because he’s the World No. 1 and this is what he does, the big Spaniard converted on the putt to get to six under, three back of Billy Horschel’s pacesetting nine-under 63 on the North Course.
One day after Rahm dished on his preferred course setups following a foul-mouthed outburst caught on tape last week, there was very little in his post-round comments to indicate there will be some open crack for challengers around him to exploit.
“I think it all started off the tee,” he said of the day. “I hit it great off the tee, put myself in really good positions. And the few times I was off, for the most part I was able to give myself a chance to save the hole, so I think that was the key. Nothing was really bad, I feel like everything was feeling good, everything was coming out and feeling the way it should and it showed in the score.”
Playing with Rahm were two other pre-tourney favorites in Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson. Combined, the group was 14 under on the South Course, indicative of the talent level in the trio. At one point, they were the three lowest scores on the South Course. Rahm’s closing eagle, however, created a little separation for the “defending” Torrey champion.
After opening his year with a missed cut at last week’s American Express, Rickie Fowler rebounded in a strong way with a first-round six-under 66 on the North Course. This is obviously a critical year for Fowler, and a critical beginning to the year with the threat of missing his second straight Masters looming. Given his stature, he’s not afforded the luxury of working through things or struggling in anonymity.
What he’s working through right now, and what worked for him Wednesday, sounds like the antithesis of so much of what we hear about and is promoted ad nauseam these days: speed, and the chase for more speed. Fowler said he succeeded in the first round simply by slowing down.
“I felt like I was swinging at about 60 percent and took about three hours to get to the top of my backswing,” Fowler said after the round. “That would roughly be the feelings of it. Just tried to be, like I was talking about, a lot more deliberate, not trying to rush things. I got a little quick on a couple transitions out there, lost a couple to the right, but other than that I felt like I did a good job.”
So don’t expect to see Fowler sweating, grunting and coming out of his shoes like another player who wears the same apparel and plays the same brand equipment (and was four shots worse on Wednesday). For Rickie, it’s slow and basic right now.
“I'm not necessarily getting full numbers, I'm not trying to … I'm trying to stay a bit more controlled,” he said. “So for now I just need to make sure the club's at least in a little better spot and everything's working together a little bit better. I'll be able to create more speed once things feel a little bit more comfortable, but just trying to make sure we are doing things right.”
That approach put him in a tie for fifth place after 18 holes, a spot he’s rarely appeared over the past couple years on PGA Tour leader boards. Now comes the more challenging South Course on Thursday, where the eyes will be on him again.
Blondes have more fun
In the non-golf category, the empty-calorie news sensation of the day was Brooks Koepka’s hair. The day started with an amusing, if unexplained, avatar change on Twitter of a throwback pic of a young Brooks with markedly lighter hair than what we’ve come to know during his time in the spotlight.
Then came the murmurs and initial sightings of a potential hair overhaul for the present-day four-time major winner. A hat obscured the true scope of the change, but the big reveal came at the end of his round and there was no hiding the makeover.
Given the response to it, could this have been a simple PIP play from the PIP master? Not according to this answer he gave Ryan Lavner. Not a PIP play. Not a lost bet. Not some youthful rebellion or whimsy. Just a pretty vanilla reason for the big aesthetic change.
In on-course matters, Koepka is T-52 after an underwhelming two-under 70 on the North Course, where you needed to go low on Wednesday.
A tale of two courses
A Farmers Insurance Open tradition unlike any other was accentuated to even greater extremes in the first round. The South Course did not brutalize the field, but it was far from the pushover that the North Course was for these elite talents. This is the same song almost every year: Players in the field know they have to get on their horse in the one of two rounds on the less-heralded North. It becomes a challenge to make the cut, and certainly to contend, if you boot away the birdie chances that one round presents.
In this opening round, the shot averages gap widened even beyond what we’re used to seeing recently.
Only four of the top 30 players on the leader board played the more difficult South Course. You hope for similar scoring conditions to make things as equitable as possible, but this is the reality of this stretch of the year with limited daylight and near full fields of golfers looking for playing opportunities and precious FedEx Cup points. We’re in the middle of a three-week stretch when multiple courses will be used before a cut is made. Expect the leader board to balance out on Thursday as the second half of the field gets their crack at the North.