AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods isn’t playing this week and Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, is not really playing well enough right now to be a major threat to repeat. Makes it tougher to predict who will be the sensational international headline at Augusta National this time around, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
Take a look at Jon Rahm, the rookie from Spain with the mammoth distance off the tee and the confidence to contend in his first Masters.
He’s all of 22 but that shouldn’t disqualify him. Tiger and Jordan Spieth both were 21 when they got their first green jackets. Rahm was the low amateur at his first U.S. Open, just like Tiger was the low amateur at his first Masters.
Besides, Rahm already has a victory on the PGA Tour this year, and he got it in dramatic fashion, making a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole to win the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.
More recently, at the WGC Match Play event in Texas, Rahm reached the championship match against world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The match started badly, with Rahm 5 down very early, but he rallied to push it all the way to the 18th green before losing 1 down.
“Once I got back in the groove,” Rahm said Tuesday at Augusta National, “I learned that when I’m playing good, I can take on the No. 1 player in the world.”
That boldness, the kind once displayed by Rahm’s golfing hero Seve Ballesteros, is bound to make a difference in the Masters, a tournament marked by great risks and great rewards.
“I’m going to tee it up believing that I can win,” said Rahm, who played a practice round Tuesday with Phil Mickelson. “I might do it. I might now but that’s how I do it. That’s what I did at Torrey Pines.”
Still looking for a good reason to believe in Rahm, whose college coach at Arizona State was Lefty’s brother Tim Mickelson? How about this?
Rahm accelerated his mastery of English by absorbing and repeating the lyrics of rap songs by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
“It was not necessarily to learn new words but to help with pronunciation and enunciation and to able to pronounce certain words and be able to talk faster, without pausing,” Rahm said. “It really helped me out to be able to keep up with some conversations.”
The kid’s a fast learner, and he doesn’t mind trying new things, like trying to be the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on his first visit here.
Rahm tees off Thursday at 1:41 p.m. with Rory McIlroy and Hideto Tanihara, a 14-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour and a semifinalist at the recent WGC Match Play event.
If you’re wondering why a rookie rates such a feature pairing, Rahm has risen to No. 12 in the Official World Golf Rankings, just behind Sergio Garcia and ahead of Masters champions Willett, Mickelson and Bubba Watson.