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Masters 2023: The Golf Gods got it right with Jon Rahm at Augusta National

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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On this Easter Sunday, on this fourth day of Passover, the question can be asked:

Do golf gods actually exist?

And now we know. Now we have proof.

They do.

And here’s the proof.

Jon Rahm of coastal Spain and greater Phoenix and the PGA Tour, won the 87th Masters by four shots over two men, a sun-whipped 52-year-old Phil Mickelson and his fellow LIV Golf golfer Brooks Koepka.

When Saturday’s rain finally stopped and the sunrise came at Augusta National on Sunday, Koepka was leading by four shots. Through three days of heat and wind and cold and rain, he looked like a golfing stud. But had he gone on to win this tournament, an asterisk would have been attached to his victory and this Masters forever, because of a rules incident in his Thursday round.

There’s no need to rehash the whole incongruous rules episode here. (This space is reserved for Senor Rahm!) But briefly:

After his Thursday round, Koepka was shown seemingly conclusive video evidence that his caddie had shared information with another caddie about what club his boss had hit for his second shot on the 15th hole. Sharing such information violates one of golf’s basic principles. Faced with the video evidence, Koepka could have said, “In the interest of fairness to the rest of the field and the tournament itself, I’ll assess myself a two-shot penalty.” He didn’t do that, and his first-round score stood as 65, not the 67 many thought it should have been.

And that made Rahm’s job that much more difficult, and his victory that much more of a relief for anybody still old-fashioned enough to believe golf has a value system that makes it unlike any other sport.

It should be noted there have been times in Rahm’s career that he has faced odd golf circumstances—once, memorably, by the rule book, another time by a COVID test result—with admirable equanimity. Which is saying something, because by personality type, he is absolutely hot-blooded, emotional, not prone to long periods of calm.

Jon Rahm Rodriguez, 28 going on 38, now has a seat at the table for the rest of his life. The winner of the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines is now the fourth Spaniard to win the Masters. Seve Ballesteros won it twice, in 1980 and 1983. His protégé, Jose Maria Olazabal, won it twice, in 1994 and 1999. (Tiger Woods, a five-time winner at Augusta, attributes some of his success in the tournament to what he learned from those two.) Sergio Garcia won the 2017 Masters. And now Rahm.

Four men from large, close working-class families with deep Basque roots and golf games loaded with flair and artistry. They all speak (or spoke) English with remarkable precision, but Rahm’s English is like a gift for anyone who gets to hear him speak.

In victory, he talked about the other Spaniards. He recalled that Garcia had been the low amateur at the 1999 Masters. He talked about how the 1997 Ryder Cup in Spain, with Ballesteros as the captain of the winning European team, changed the direction of his life, and his family’s life. “The history of the game is a big reason why I play,” Rahm said.

An elemental part of the game’s history, and one of its central traditions, is to treat the rulebook as the sport’s holy text, as its constitution, as its founding document. The game is played over such a sprawling playfield, and so many unusual situations arise, that it requires a rulebook that by necessity is complicated. For the past decade, there have been signs that golf is becoming more like other sports, with a guiding principle of catch me if you can. When Rahm celebrates golf’s history, he is also celebrating its rulebook.

Rahm and Mickelson have the same agent, Steve Loy. Mickelson’s brother, Tim, had once been Rahm’s agent. Rahm has been one of the most prominent peace-making voices in the PGA Tour-LIV Golf divide. Rahm said early on that his “fealty” (yes, his word) is to the PGA Tour. But he also believes that LIV golfers should earn World Ranking points and be able to play in the Ryder Cup.

With his exceptionally short and fast backswing, Rahm has an action that looks nothing like Mickelson’s long, languid move. Mickelson, like Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples before him, used the hallowed grounds of the celebrated golf course here, Augusta National, as a sort of green-grass version of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth.

We should probably let that remarkable feat wash over us for a second: The captain of LIV Golf’s HyFlyers team, a three-time Masters winner who was urged not to play last year after various incendiary comments about his longtime golfing home, the PGA Tour, finished second.

That’s a remarkable threesome of large, strong golfing men: Rahm and Mickelson and Koepka, the big, bad star of LIV Golf in 2023 and a star of the Netflix series Full Swing, for the vulnerability he showed in it.

Rahm and Koepka played 30 holes together on Sunday, and when they resumed their third round in the early-morning chill Koepka had a four-shot lead over Rahm. Things unraveled for Koepka in the usual way, suddenly and gradually. Play resumed with the two men standing on the seventh green. Koepka missed a putt for par. Rahm made a putt for birdie. The lead was halved.

Many would say that it should have been all tied up at that point, but the scoreboard’s truth was starkly clear: Rahm was suddenly two back and his game of catch-up was on.

If you’re long with the driver and a mega-talent, like a Jon Rahm or a Brooks Koepka or a Phil Mickelson, Augusta National in still conditions can play almost easy. But once doubt creeps in, it’s almost impossible to turn things around. On the par-3 sixth hole, in the final round, Koepka tried to take something off a 7-iron. He struck it well, or too well, and it flew the green.

It’s so hard to win a first green jacket in part because it is so hard to know how your body will react to the adrenaline racing through it. Yes, Koepka is one of golf’s big-game hunters, with two U.S. Open wins and two PGA Championship trophies. But the Masters is the Masters, Augusta National is Augusta National, and there was no way that Brooks Koepka could look at Jon Rahm and say, “I can take care of this guy.” This guy is just too good.

LIV vs. PGA Tour. Proven winner vs. proven winner. Big man vs. big man, each looking for his first Masters win.

It was tense, exciting, beautiful. It was a break from the squabbling. It was golf.

Koepka said his Sunday golf was “average.” By his high standards? It was barely that. He said the pace of play was heinous, noting that Rahm took about seven bathroom breaks in an apparent effort to kill time. (But managing the golf’s glacial pace on Sundays at majors is part of what it’s all about.) Koepka recalled some of the bad breaks he got and said, “I didn’t get any good breaks.” He didn’t sound whiny. It might read that way, but that’s not how he sounded.

But for a guy who is so direct, he could have given the game a big life this week, by handling the situation on 15 in the first round differently.

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Christian Petersen

The final nail in the coffin, with two evenly matched golfers in the last pairing, came on 14 in the afternoon round. Both players hit tee shots that finished in the right rough. Both had to play slice irons out of it. Both hit good shots that, once they reached the green, were sort of out of their hands, as the golf gods took over, as they do. Koepka’s finished 45 feet from the hole and he needed three putts. Rahm’s finished four feet from the hole and he needed one putt.

That birdie-bogey handshake turned Rahm’s three-shot lead to five over Koepka (and to four over Mickelson). It got him to 12 under for the tournament. He closed with four straight pars.

As it is written in the record book: 65, 69, 73 and 69, for 276.

He’s in the club forever. Jon Rahm raised the flag for the values Augusta National has celebrated over the years: emotion, talent, style, energy, length, touch, with a sense of history and tradition and grace.

His fealty is to the game.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com