Dublin, Ohio: Here in the midyear and mid-Ohio heat of Jack Nicklaus’s golf wonderland, a cool memory wafted in from the game’s vast history and graced the premises late Saturday: that majestic and melodic name, Severiano Ballesteros.
The 23 men who have reached the planet’s No. 1 ranking at one of its most agonising pursuits have included eight Americans, four Englishmen, three Australians and two Germans, with one golfer each from Fiji, Wales, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the current Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy) and Spain. But as of Sunday at the Memorial Tournament, Spain might go plural to two, a walk up No. 18 might double as a feast of emotion and Ballesteros’ game-changing influence will have rippled even further.
That’s because Jon Rahm, the 25-year-old Spaniard born 65 miles along the craggy Atlantic coast from Ballesteros’ hometown, will start Sunday with a four-shot lead after a Saturday when the leader board inverted itself dramatically. If the No. 2-ranked Rahm, at 12-under after a third-round 68, can hold off Ryan Palmer and one-time front-runner Tony Finau at 8-under and also everybody else in this smashing field, well, let Rahm assess the meaning ...
“It’s always tough to put into words,” Rahm said of his debt to the late Ballesteros, who won five major championships and redefined the game from his particular intersection of swash and buckle. “Seve is a huge influence of mine. I’ve said many times thanks to that Ryder Cup in ‘97 and his captaincy and the way he inspired many not only in Spain but in Europe, he’s the reason why I’m playing here today, and any time I can do something remotely close to what he did, it’s pretty emotional.
“I can’t lie. It’s something that’s deep in my core as a Spaniard and as a player I would love to achieve, and if you think about it, major champions that came after him like Sergio [Garcia] and [Jose Maria] Olazabal never got to be, so it would be quite unique. But against, it’s all a consequence of me winning tomorrow, right, so it’s an afterthought.”
Yet it’s an afterthought from which he wouldn’t run. “Oh, it’s extremely important,” he said, soon adding, “It’s obviously a big deal. I can’t sit here and try to diminish it and avoid it because it would just be lying to myself because it is a big deal.”
Rahm bounded along merrily, birdieing Nos. 13, 14, 15 and 16 toward a back-nine 32, clearly needing no roars to inspire himself at this latest spectator-less tournament. His putts came from 13 feet, five feet, a two-putt after a venture from primary rough to 36 feet on the par-5 No. 15 and, from 26 feet, what he called “a lucky putt on 16”.
“I just assumed I was going to have three, four, five feet for par, and luckily it found the hole,” he said. “Hopefully I don’t have to rely on putts like that tomorrow.”
Along the way, as his 68 popped up behind his 67 of Friday and his 69 of Thursday, the former Arizona State Sun Devil and Arizona-based Rahm won that utmost battle Ballesteros used to win dramatically: the one with oneself.
That’s been a tricky one for him to win sometimes, even if such a theme might not dredge tears given a guy who has won thrice on the PGA Tour and six times on the European, including twice in Ireland, twice in Spain and twice in Dubai.
“There’s definitely been moments out there this week where I could have just lost it or maybe in the past I would have gotten more frustrated and changed my game plan,” he said. “Maybe a couple years ago I don’t think I would be here with a four-shot lead right now going into tomorrow. It’s a slow process. Unfortunately I’m a person who learns from mistakes, like most of us I would say, and luckily I’ve been able to.”
In mature, US Open-like form on Saturday, he told himself, “Just keep making pars. Pars were never bad.”
In just making pars, he soon made birdies. Then a man who wasn’t quite three years old when Ballesteros captained that Ryder Cup in Spain, but who has come a long way already, spoke of making enough good shots on Sunday to “enjoy that walk,” as he put it. That would be the walk up No. 18, and could be the walk that illustrates how a 25-year-old has come so far quite fast.