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The new Rahm is in the Masters groove
HIS rise in men's golf has been phenomenal.
Only an amateur in 2016, in less than three years since he turned professional, Jon Rahm has stunned the golfing world with his supreme talent and pulsating prowess to move up the world rankings to No. 9.
And just last month, the 24-year-old could have sealed the Players Championship title if not for some blunders on the final day. The biggest of them came on the par-five 11th hole. Holding the lead after 54 holes following a sensational third-round 64, Rahm disregarded his caddie Adam Hayes' advice and followed his own instincts.
Hayes attempted to talk his boss out of going for the green from a seemingly impossible spot in a fairway bunker, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Rahm's attempt found water, leading to a bogey and a subsequent gradual slide from the perch to a tie for 12th after a four-over 76.
Angry though, Rahm took that blow in his chin. There was no club slamming nor temper tantrum that he displayed at the 2017 US Open (and missed the cut) by the old Jon Rahm.
The new Rahm, passionate and positive, is working to use his anger in the right way. "Rhambo", as he has been nicknamed, said recently: "I'm still as competitive and things still hurt me, they still piss me off, they still get me mad. What I hope people can see is how much I've come along on that final round to act not like Jon would have acted before. It's a long way from the 2017 event."
With this exemplary attitude, calm and composed demeanour and new-found motivation, the Rolex Testimonee is considered to be among the front-runners for the prestigious Augusta Major this week. And he could also very well be the fourth Spaniard, following in the giant footsteps of the legendary Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983), Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) and Sergio Garcia (2017) to claim the prestigious crown.
Standing in his way is a "who's who" brigade, namely Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Rory Mcllroy, Francisco Molinari, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau and last month's WGC-Dell Technologies Matchplay winner Kevin Kisner.
Alongside them is a new generation of burgeoning golfers, labelled the "Rolex New Guard", which is asserting its authority on the sport and, in doing so, inspiring a future generation of athletes to follow suit.
Born in the 1980s and 1990s, these prodigious golfers include England's Matthew Fitzpatrick, a four-time European Tour winner and 2015 Players Championship winner Rickie Fowler.
And when you toss in 14-time Major winner Woods who beat fancied Mcllroy in the recent Matchplay event, the equation is confusing and puzzling. Woods is cautiously optimistic about his chances on a course as familiar as the back of his palm and he is fully aware that golfers will struggle to tackle Amen Corner at Augusta.
Three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo, told me last month at the Laguna Lang Co course in Central Vietnam, where the Faldo Series Asia Grand Final was staged:
"There are so many contenders. Victory will go to one of the big-hitters who, with the help of sophisticated equipment, are capable of cutting corners at Augusta with their consistent 320-metre drives."
A reputed sports website, when fixing the odds for the iconic event, had 11 players listed at 20-1 with Johnson as the standalone favourite at 10-1.
With 21 Rolex Testimonees in the field of 87 players for the April 11 to 14 Major, there is about a 20 per cent chance that one of them would nick the tantalising title.
Since the turn of the century, Rolex Testimonees have won the Major nine times, with Woods and Phil Mickelson winning the coveted crown three times each.
And what we are seeing is the continuation of a winning tradition set by "The Big Three" of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player beginning with Palmer's triumph in 1958.
The three legendary golfers changed the face of golf forever, and their partnership with Rolex marked the beginnings of a quest for perfection, excellence and sportsmanship, the impressionable trademark of the Swiss watchmaker.
In that respect, the US Masters is a golfing Major close to Rolex's motto, mission and motive. Palmer (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964), Player (1961, 1974, 1978) and Nicklaus (1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, 1986) set the trail blazing with majestic wins and multiple seconds.
Tom Watson (1977, 1981), Bernhard Langer (1985, 1993), Fred Couples (1992), José Maria Olazabál (1994, 1999), Woods (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005), Mickelson (2004, 2006, 2010), Trevor Immelman (2008), Scott (2013) and Spieth (2015) continued the Rolex winning pattern.
So as awesome Augusta beckons, the golfing world turns its attention once more to the vagaries of the Masters, and the pristine, azalea-lined fairways of a world-famous golf club where Rolex has been an International Partner since 1999.
Now in its 83rd edition, the first men's Major of 2019 invites the best professionals and amateur golfers in the world, as well as past champions, to compete for the coveted Green Jacket.
The field, unlike that in the other three Majors, where all players are invited and comprise the top 50 players on the official world ranking list and many past champions, is obviously talent-laden and it's anybody's game for the coveted crown.
And although there have been multiple winners, only three players, Nicklaus (1965-66), Faldo (1989-90) and Woods (2001-02), have managed to register consecutive victories.
So American Reed, who held off the formidable challenge of Fowler and Spieth to claim last year's title, will have to raise his game in order to retain the crown.
The Augusta course is also known to have turned champions into "nobodies". That was what happened to Faldo who, after winning it in 1996, suffered the ignominy of missing the cut the following year. So was it for defending champions Ben Crenshaw (1996), Danny Willett (2017) and Sergio Garcia (2018).
At the Augusta course one plays on a knife's edge. The course is set up perfectly to reward shots played to the correct spots while simultaneously punishing those that fall on the wrong side of the hole.
It demands thinking, strategy and course management. The front nine is a real slog but the back nine offers chances for birdies, and even eagles, thus allowing room for unpredictability.
One of the tournament's many storied tradition is that a green Augusta members' jacket is awarded to the Masters champion each year. The champion may keep the jacket for a year, but then it must be returned to the club where it is kept for the player to wear only while he is on the grounds of the golf club.
So who will join the pantheon of golfing greats this time? Your guess is as good as mine.