LA JOLLA, Calif. — This was a party to which Marc Leishman was not invited, a gathering of a few of the game’s most luminous stars at or near the top of the leader board. Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy were ahead of him, Tiger Woods lurking behind him.
Undeterred, Leishman, the sizable and affable Australian, crashed this elite party spectacularly, an interloping spoiler who played virtually a flawless round of 65 to win the Farmers Insurance Open on the South Course at Torrey Pines on Sunday.
“I wasn’t expecting this at the start of the day,” he said, and no doubt neither was anyone else. The leader was Rahm, ranked third in the world and a winner here in 2017. McIlroy, No. 2 in the world, was three back. Leishman was four back and Tiger, on a seaside course he has made his own over the years, a towering and threatening presence, was five back.
“I knew if I played good I could give myself a chance,” Leishman said, “but if the guys out ahead had their best stuff, I wasn’t going to win, obviously.”
Yet Leishman began his round with four straight 3s (“that’s the start you want,” he said), played the front nine in five-under 31, led by as many as four on the back nine, signed his card, then waited out a furious closing rally by Rahm.
Overcoming a horrendous opening stretch of holes that had him three over through three and four over through five, Rahm played the final six holes in five under par. His 53-foot eagle putt on 18, on virtually the identical line on which he holed a 60-footer to win in 2017, came up inches short and a hair off line of tying Leishman and forcing a playoff.
The victory was the fifth of Leishman’s PGA Tour career and came on Australia Day, the national holiday of his homeland. And what a day it was for Australian golfers and Australia, the latter have endured the brutal bushfires. Earlier on Sunday, another Australian, Lucas Herbert, won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour.
“Yeah, congrats to Lucas. Huge week for him,” Leishman said. “Australia’s going through some tough times at the moment. It’s gotten a little better, but it’s still bad. For us to do this and maybe bring some joy to everyone back home.”
Aussies, incidentally, were winless on the PGA Tour in 2019, yet have now won two of the last three PGA Tour events in 2020, Leishman’s victory coming two weeks after countryman Cameron Smith won the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Leishman, 36, won while hitting only three of 14 fairways on Sunday, but he was able to offset his misfires with his putting, the best in the field all week.
“It was pretty nice to see them go in, to be honest,” he said. “Holed a big one on the first and it just continued all day. It was funny, because I drove it really well early in the week and then clearly I didn’t drive it well today. But my iron game was really good and then the putter. I had some really good par saves there on the back nine.”
The best was the 20-footer he holed for par on the difficult par-4 12th hole. He made an eight-footer to save par at 15, then holed a six-foot birdie putt on 18. “I knew that putt was going to be pretty important on the last hole because that pin on 18 is pretty conducive to an eagle, especially with that forward tee.”
Rahm hit the fairway with his tee shot, then hit a 5-wood to the back of the green, leaving him a familiar downhiller. “Even if I hit the right speed, that putt doesn’t go in,” Rahm said. “It was left of the hole the whole way, so it doesn’t matter. But still, it’s just a sour feeling.”
One man’s sour is another’s sweet, and Leishman, hitting balls from the first tee on the South Course to keep loose, listened carefully to the crowd to relay the result of the putt to him.
“This was a pretty sweet victory, just because I’ve come close here a few times,” he said. “From my first year on tour, I felt like this is a place I could win and then to finally do it my 12th year is really satisfying."