Spaniard Jon Rahm seals six-stroke victory at Irish Open in Portstewart
If Jon Rahm wasn't a superstar before this week's Irish Open, he certainly is now. Michael McWilliams watched the Spaniard tear a top class field to pieces over four fascinating days at Portstewart Golf Club....
UNDER slate grey skies in Portstewart yesterday, Jon Rahm hoisted the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open trophy aloft, but the weather couldn't dampen the Spaniard's enthusiasm for his new favourite event.
Naturally, it is easy to wax lyrical about a tournament, a course, an area, when you've demolished the strongest field assembled in Ireland in recent memory, but there was no disguising the affection Rahm has for the north coast.
All week he talked of falling in love with ‘the place' when he visited for the British Amateur Championship in 2014, and in truth it was fairly evident from a long way out that he would be leaving after this visit with more than just warm memories.
Yesterday, teeing it up in the final twoball alongside the little-known American Daniel Im, there seemed a sense of inevitability that the 22-year-old would add his name to an illustrious list of past winners.
Realistically, though, he was the man to beat from the moment he signed for an opening seven-under 65 in the company of host Rory McIlroy, last year's champion, and world number two Hideki Matsuyama.
As it was, Rahm waltzed home by six shots from Scotland's Richie Ramsay and England Matthew Southgate at 24-under par after a closing 65, and admitted he'd taken his performance to a new level on a Portstewart layout that has captured his heart.
“To play my best golf at this course, that is something I never thought I'd be capable of,” he said.
The bumper crowds that scrambled for vantage points right across the Strand Course over the weekend were in no doubt that Rahm was capable of such heights, and as soon as it became clear on Saturday afternoon that there would be no Irish winner to succeed McIlroy, the giant Spaniard was the champion of choice.
The sun was splitting the trees on Saturday as he made his way into a share of the lead with Im, although natural Irish pessimism prevented most of those in attendance enjoying the blue skies and searing heat.
“Beautiful day, isn't it?”
“Yeah, but it's to lash down tomorrow.”
Threatening clouds hovered overhead from the off, but the rain stayed away all morning as a number of Irish players posted good scores.
Gavin Moynihan, Michael Hoey and Shane Lowry all made significant strides through the field with rounds in the mid-60s, but the fact that Lowry was happily smiling for selfies with fans young and old with his work done while the leaders made their way to the first tee was evidence that they were well off the pace.
And almost as soon as the last group struck their first shots, the heavens duly opened and persistent rain hung around from there on, umbrellas sprung up and the scene was set.
Striding down the first, the twoball of Im and Rahm looked a David and Goliath clash and while the underdog wins once in a while, this was never going to be one of those occasions.
Honours were even at the first when the two made pars, and the duo atop the leaderboard soon became a trio when David Drysdale, ironically given the wet weather, birdied his last seven holes to get to 17-under.
That was never likely to be enough, in the end giving the Scot a share of fourth alongside Im, Ryan Fox and Justin Rose.
Rahm rescued par from 20-feet on the second and Im's race was almost run when he three-putted from around the same range and also dropped a shot at the next.
After a steady start, the eventual champion gave the spectators a reminder of his star quality by holing a majestic seven iron for eagle at the par-five fifth.
Cries of ‘Ole' went up from the crowd and the momentum was all with Rahm.
“That was clearly a turning point,” he said.
“I didn't miss a shot from there until my tee shot on 13.”
Those holes encompassed a run of four straight birdies from the seventh to take his score to a scarcely believable 23-under, enough for a six-shot lead, and enough to absorb the shock of being stopped walking off the 13th tee by chief referee Andy McFee, who wanted a chat about a
ball-marking incident on the sixth green.
Happy with, Rahm's explanation, backed up by playing partner Im, McFee decided no penalty was required and after being set back initially, the Spaniard soon put it to the back of his mind with another eagle three at 14.
The watching hordes, 20,096 of them in a five-day total of 92,534, roared their approval and Rahm punched the air, as if for the first time accepting that the job was done.
A first bogey of the day came at 16, the shot was recovered at 17, and then dropped again at the last, but a short missed putt there mattered little as the drenched fans loudly saluted their new champion, who returned to that final green to collect the trophy and return the compliments to those watching on.
“I've never played the Spanish Open, yet, but it will be really hard for the Spanish fans to top the Irish fans this week,” he said.
“Even when I played with Rory (over the first two days) I had a massive amount of support. Maybe just because Rory didn't play at the level he wanted, didn't make the cut, I don't know, I still had a ton of support.
“Even on the first tee, obviously Rory is going to get most of the attention but I got a bigger fan base than I expected.
“I have to attribute part of my success to the fans. It's been amazing and I really fed off that and played the way I did partly because of that.”
Rahm will now turn his attention to Royal Birkdale and the Open Championship from July 20, although not before a week at home in Spain. He will go there as one of the favourites, but even further in the future will be a return to these shores to defend his title at Ballyliffin next year.
Looking at the crystal Irish Open trophy, he said: “My name is going to be there forever now, but it seems hard to believe it has happened.
“I just look at it and I see Nick Faldo, I see Jose Maria Olazabal, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve. That's a list of the greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to the last one, Rory McIlroy, it's so special.
“Not just to win it, but to win it at the place I just won it, at Portstewart, a great golf course, with the fans supporting me better than I've ever seen anybody supporting me. It's been unbelievable.”
It was an unbelievable week all round. The European Tour bandwagon now moves on to the Scottish Open, while the Irish Open will reappear in Donegal next year when Rahm will be in attendance.
When asked would he be back to defend his trophy, he replied: “Why wouldn't I?”
“I've had such a great time. It's a beautiful place, people are great, the food is great, I really can't complain about anything.
“I'm sure the next golf course is going to be as special as this one, so I would not miss that for the world.”
Portstewart will hold a special place in the heart of Jon Rahm as the place he sealed only his second professional win, and his first in Europe.
And the county Derry town got a special champion at the end of the week. One who could go right to the top of the game.