Jon Rahm has turned a corner

January 29, 2020
Justin Ray

As Jon Rahm stood over his ball in the 18th fairway last Sunday at Torrey Pines, the raw numbers said making the eagle necessary to force a playoff with Marc Leishman was highly unlikely.

WM Viz request-04Rahm was 234 yards from the pin, with water protecting the front of the green. From 225 to 250 yards away, the average approach shot on the PGA Tour winds up more than 50 feet away. Only three players had made eagle there all day.

Yet in that moment, even the most dutiful numbers-hawk may have let human nature creep in. Rahm has been a human torch since last summer, contending virtually every time he plays. Jon had just birdied 16 and 17 to get within striking distance. An eagle seemed inevitable. Alas, it wasn’t – and Leishman got a well-deserved fifth PGA Tour title.

It was Rahm’s tenth top-five finish in his last 15 worldwide starts, a prime-Tiger-like sprint that has him as the betting favorite this week in Arizona. Since the U.S. Open last summer, Rahm has a scoring average of 68.4 and is a combined 171 strokes under par.

The gap between Rahm and the world number one ranking has shrunk dramatically over the last six months. Not coincidentally, so has the gap between his performance tee-to-green (which he’s been terrific at since turning pro) and putting.

Rahm has played 12 tournaments worldwide since the U.S. Open in which strokes gained data has been available. During that span, his average field rank in strokes gained tee-to-green is 8.0. In putting, it’s a surprisingly elite 14.6. In six of those tournaments, he’s ranked in the top-ten in the field.

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It’s a big jump from just two seasons ago, when Rahm was well outside the top-100 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting per round. Last week in San Diego, only lights-out Leishman gained more strokes putting on the South Course greens than Rahm did.

It’s the kind of quantum leap that could lead to Rahm winning his first major championship in 2020.

 

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

This is undoubtedly a ball-striking contest every year at TPC Scottsdale: nine of the last eleven winners here ranked in the top-five for the week in greens in regulation. Since 2010, the winner’s average field rank in strokes gained tee-to-green is 4.5, while it’s nearly 20th in putting.

Do the rowdy, beverage-enhanced afternoon crowds have any impact on play? It’s possible, but last year, the later tee times actually had a better scoring average than the early wave. In 2018, that was reversed – the late wave was about half-a-stroke higher than the morning. The omnipresent party in the desert this week will have more impact on ambience than it will the play on the course.

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While the wild 16th gets the headlines, the tee shot at the short par-four 17th provides more intrigue. Over the last five years, fortune has favored the bold there – players who go for the green have a scoring average of 3.58, while those who lay up average 4.10.

 

NOTES ON PLAYERS COMPETING THIS WEEK

– The two events seem immensely different on the surface, but is there a correlation between success in Phoenix and at the U.S. Open?

Consider the last five winners at TPC Scottsdale. Brooks Koepka (2015 winner) has won two U.S. Open titles since his victory in the desert. Hideki Matsuyama (2016 and 2017 winner) has top-25s in five of his last seven U.S. Open starts and a runner-up to his credit. Gary Woodland (2018 winner) won at Pebble Beach last summer, and Rickie Fowler (defending champion) has three top-ten finishes at his national championship. A unique pairing, to say the least.

Matsuyama is the leader in this event in scoring average (67.7) and birdies/eagles per round (4.86) among players with 16 or more rounds at TPC Scottsdale over the last decade. He has never shot over par in 21 career rounds here.

Tony Finau has to win again – and soon – right? Last week’s T-6 at Torrey Pines was his 27th top-ten on the PGA Tour over the last four seasons – eleven more than any other player without a victory in that span. Finau is up to 18th in the 15th Club Performance Index and 13th in the World Ranking. He’s in the field this week in Arizona.

Jordan Spieth is outside the top-50 in the World Ranking this week for the first time since August of 2013, which was just after he turned 20 years old. Since finishing third at the 2018 Masters, Spieth has played 40 times around the world – during that stretch he has as many missed cuts (six) as top-ten finishes (six). Jordan has three previous starts in Phoenix: T-7, T-9 and MC.

– With six top-20 finishes in his last seven appearances in Phoenix, Webb Simpson will be a popular pick this week. He finished third in his only start of 2020 so far, the Sony Open. He hasn’t finished outside the top-25 in any of his previous nine worldwide starts. Now 11th in World Ranking, Simpson is looking to get back into the top-10 for the first time since 2012.

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– A strong field – featuring Koepka, Dustin Johnson and more – awaits at the European Tour’s Saudi International. First place this week in Saudi Arabia is projected to be worth 48 World Ranking points, compared to 54 for Phoenix. This is just Brooks’ second start since returning from injury – he finished tied for 34th in Abu Dhabi. Johnson is playing for just the second time since August – he finished tied for seventh in Maui at the Tournament of Champions.

 

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, Tiger finished tied for ninth, his 199th career top-ten finish on the PGA Tour. With his next top-ten, he will be the only player to accumulate 200 or more in the last forty years. Woods has finished in the top-ten in more than 55 percent of his career PGA Tour starts.