PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — There are a series of numbers that begin to explain Jon Rahm’s recent run of golfing brilliance. We’ll get to some of those. But it’s far more fun to describe how it feels, and in that department, algorithms only go so far.
So we look to Max Homa, Sunday’s second-place finisher and one of the best analogy-makers in the game. Homa fought as hard as he could, all week, and even stole the lead from Rahm in the middle of the back nine. But there’s an inevitability to this version of Rahm we’re seeing. Give him 72 holes and he just emerges.
“Yes, he’s probably Thanos,” Homa said, citing the Avengers super-villain so strong it requires an entire universe of heroes to topple him. “He has a lot of the [infinity] stones in his toolbox. He’s a tremendous golfer, he has zero weaknesses. He’s been this dude for a long time.”
He really has been. But Rahm is also playing the best golf of his life and is finally comfortable admitting it. He has officially ascended to World No. 1 but doesn’t seem to care specifically about that honor; he’s comfortable knowing he’s been atop the eye-test rankings for weeks and months, as Homa alluded to. He’s won five of his last nine tournaments worldwide, and in the four he didn’t win he finished in the top eight every time. So Homa’s comparison fits. Rahm is always going to be there, and it might take 130 players to beat him. Rory McIlroy captured the mood of the field on Thursday, admitting when he saw Rahm was six under and atop the early leaderboard, he rolled his eyes (at least figuratively) and thought, “Again?!?” Thanos was back for more.
Like any good superhero movie, Homa had Rahm right where he wanted him on Sunday. He built a one-shot lead and even saw Rahm hard-hook his tee shot at 13 into the barranca on the edge of the property. At that moment, having just five and a half holes to play felt like an asset.
But Rahm got a break when his shot was so far off-line that it ended up being okay, while Homa’s got completely rejected by a set of century-old eucalyptus trees. Rahm escaped with a par and promptly poured in a birdie from 45 feet on the next hole. Then he breezed through the Kikuya rough on 15, tossed a dart to kick-in range on 16 and roasted a drive 329 yards up the 17th fairway. Suddenly the end of the movie felt like it was closing in. There wasn’t enough time left to defeat him. Homa’s last-ditch effort came on the 18th when he nearly holed out for birdie, but the ball grazed the cup and skidded by. Rahm won again, and comfortably.
Our 28-year-old superstar accepted the trophy from the game’s greatest player, Tiger Woods, and used part of his post-tourney presser to wax on about Woods’ accomplishments. Plenty of pros can rattle off Woods stats, too, but most of them do it in awe. Rahm seems to have logged them as goals worth pursuing. And who’s to say he won’t be able to chase after some of them? Weekends like this one make anything seem possible.
There have been post-Tiger peaks before and they don’t last long. There was Dustin Johnson in the spring of 2017, after Jordan Spieth and Jason Day in 2015. Rahm’s peak is right now (we think?) and it’s statistically better than all of theirs. That’s what the number-crunchers say, at least. How do we make real-world sense of that? Where is Rahm really at, right now, and how much higher is he than the other top players on the planet? Is he neck-and-neck with Rory McIlroy, or is on a level of his own? These are the questions that bounce around our brains.
“I think Jon has something that puts him [ahead] that much more,” Homa’s caddie Joe Greiner said, implying just a morsel of difference. It was comforting to hear that he struggles to measure the distinctions, too, especially after caddying alongside Rahm the last two days.
“The only thing I’ll say is that Jon is absolutely flabbergasted when he makes a bogey or hits a bad shot. He’s just so good at being like — he’s got the Phil [Mickelson] thing where he hits it in the trees and he’s like ‘Oh, I’m gonna make birdie still.’ I don’t know if everyone has that.”
It’s no surprise that, when pressed, Greiner can get figurative like his boss. Nor was it surprising that Homa’s post-round press conference was raw and revealing in a different way than Rahm’s. The latter has won a ton, as we’ve discussed. The former has won a bunch, too, but Homa has never finished runner-up on the PGA Tour until now. That’s a new feeling. The result was Homa getting choked up Sunday evening thinking about the opportunity he didn’t totally seize at one of the tournaments he values most. He wanted to make Rahm beat him, and he thinks he accomplished that.
It’s not easy to get a top 10 player to admit that there are better golfers than them. But Homa is self-aware enough to see that there’s a level he hasn’t yet reached, even if the margins are so slim they need to be measured over months and years rather than individual tournament rounds. He acknowledged that Rahm, McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler feel like a cut above the rest at times. But that doesn’t mean he’s accepting it
“I look forward to trying my hand at this again.”
That’s a nice thing about coming up short on the PGA Tour: There’s always another tournament. Homa can take a week off, respawn and try again. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is just 11 days away.