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The American Express

On the cusp of his fourth win in five starts, the perfectionist in Jon Rahm still sees room for improvement

January 21, 2023
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Jon Rahm plays his shot from the fifth tee during the third round of The American Express at PGA West's Pete Dye Stadium Course.

Meg Oliphant

Since making bogey on the first hole in the final round at Kapalua two weeks ago, Jon Rahm has played 71 holes on the PGA Tour. In that span, he has made two eagles, 32 birdies and just two bogeys. All totaled, he is 34 under in that stretch, including 23 under through three rounds this week at The American Express.

Of course, he came back to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions and is now tied for the lead through three rounds in La Quinta, Calif. Should he go on to win in the desert, he will have four wins in his last five starts in official PGA Tour and DP World Tour events.

Yet, after each of the first two rounds this week, the World No. 4 contended he hadn’t shown his “A” game. After a seven-under 65 on Saturday at PGA West’s Stadium Course—a round in which he was eight under through 12 holes—the Spaniard was asked how much room for improvement there is.

“A lot,” Rahm said bluntly to the Golf Channel. “Missed a putt on 1, short putt on 1. No. 11 could’ve been done a lot better. [Missed a] short putt on 13, 14, 16 and 17, so six shots right there. I know I’m being picky, but that’s six shots that I’m not being too crazy about.”

Perfectionism? Perhaps. But what might be read as vehement disappointment at missed opportunities, Rahm sees as reason for optimism.

“Again, still incredible golf,” said the 2018 champion at this event. “The fact that I can say that it can still be better gives me a lot of hope for the rest of the year, and hopefully I get that Sunday tomorrow where everything feels like it’s firing on all cylinders and post a special round.”

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Davis Thompson walks off a green during the third round of The American Express at PGA West's Pete Dye Stadium Course.

Meg Oliphant

It remains to be seen if Rahm will need a special round on Sunday to capture his ninth PGA Tour victory or if a modest score of a few under will suffice. Rahm is tied for the lead with tour rookie Davis Thompson at 23 under, with the duo having a four-stroke cushion over two-time tour winner J.T. Poston and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who shot a third-round 62 at the Nicklaus Tournament Course.

The 23-year-old Thompson holds a share of his first 54-hole lead on tour in his 20th career start. A former All-American at Georgia, Thompson held a two-shot lead entering the third round, largely fueled by a tour-record-tying five eagles over the first two days.

Though he wasn’t able to add to his eagle total on Saturday at the Stadium Course, he tallied six birdies against one bogey to card a five-under 67 to keep pace with a surging Rahm.

“I felt like I stayed patient all day and made some putts,” Thompson said. “Got off to a great start, which always helps. I was really proud with how I stayed patient. Didn't really force anything. Made a bad bogey on 14 but came back and birdied 16. So it was a good way to finish.”

Though Thompson hasn’t been in this position on the PGA Tour, he has experience playing with a lead, as you might expect from a former collegiate star. Last year at the Rex Hospital Open, the former U.S. Walker Cup team member converted a 54-hole lead for his lone Korn Ferry Tour win. Thompson built on a 36-hole lead at the 2020 Jones Cup, winning by nine shots in the prestigious amateur event played near his home in St. Simons Island, Ga.

Still, despite his success in playing with the lead, Thompson understands Sunday will present a heightened challenge, paired alongside the 2021 U.S. Open champion.

“I mean, for sure,” Thompson said when asked if he feels he is the underdog. “I’m playing against Jon Rahm. I feel like everybody would pick me as the underdog. But yeah, I kind of relish that label. I just try to go out and do my own thing and try and not let anything bother me.”

Rahm wouldn’t go so far in saying that he is the favorite. “I have the experience of being there, if it goes down to the wire,” he said when asked if he has an advantage over the rookie. “But he's no slouch, obviously. He's done what he's done. At the end of the day it's you against you. You can only control what you're doing.”

With Rahm and Thompson four strokes clear of the field, Sunday may well produce a two-man battle. After all, not since 2013 has a player come from more than three shots back in the final round to win The American Express. That said, with a light breeze forecasted and a Stadium Course that averaged more than three shots under par on Saturday, the chasers have hope.

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Tom Kim interacts with fans on the 18th green during the third round of The American Express at PGA West's Pete Dye Stadium Course.

Meg Oliphant

That includes the pack at 18 under, five shots back. Among them are World No. 13 Sam Burns, fan favorite Harry Higgs and Taylor Montgomery, who already has seven top-15 finishes in eight starts this season.

Tom Kim, the 20-year-old phenom who has already won twice on tour, is also at 18 under. The charismatic South Korean will likely need some Sunday magic reminiscent of the final-round 61 he shot to capture his maiden tour title at the Wyndham Championship last August.

PGA West: Stadium Course
Public
PGA West: Stadium Course
La Quinta, CA
Originally private, the Stadium Course (the original 18 at PGA West) was among the rota of courses for the old Bob Hope Desert Classic, until some pros, objecting to its difficulty, petitioned to remove it. (It’s now back.) It's Pete Dye at his rambunctious best, with a finish mimicking his later design at TPC Sawgrass: a gambling par-5 16th (called San Andreas Fault), a short par-3 17th to an island green and an intimidating par-4 18th with water all the way to the green.
View Course

Yet, if Kim mounts the five-shot comeback in the Coachella Valley, he would be the youngest player in 100 years to win three PGA Tour titles. Kim, who turns 21 in June, would be just a few months older than Gene Sarazen when he captured the 1922 PGA Championship.

He would join Sarazen and Horton Smith as the only players since 1900 to win three times before the age of 21.