Playing ‘Four’ History

Masters Guide

Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

With his 2023 victory, Jon Rahm joined a Spanish armada of Masters Tournament winners.

Before the start of the 87th Masters Tournament in 2023, Spanish golfer Jon Rahm was on everyone’s short list to win the green jacket. Being the pre-tournament favorite, however, does not automatically translate into victory. Yet, after 30 holes on a long day of golf, Rahm earned the second major title of his career on what would have been the 66th birthday of his hero and fellow Spaniard, two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros.

“This one was for Seve. He was up there helping, and help he did,” said Rahm, who met Ballesteros once.

Augusta National MastersPerhaps Ballesteros didn’t get the memo right away, though, because Rahm’s tournament could not have gotten off to a more inauspicious start when he four-putted the first hole for double bogey in round one. Instead of getting frustrated, however, Rahm took it in stride.

“I remembered Seve’s quote – I think it was here at the Masters, right? –  when he four-putted. I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Well, I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.’ Move on to the next. I carried a little bit of that negative energy into the tee shot on 2, hit it about ten yards farther than I usually do and moved on with my day,” said Rahm. “If you’re going to make a double bogey, might as well do it on the first hole of the tournament when you have plenty of holes to make it up.”

Even though he played in the worst of the tournament’s volatile weather and LIV golfer Brooks Koepka held the outright lead or a share of it for 54 holes plus five, things finally broke “four” Rahm in the end. Posting a final score of 12-under-par, he became the fourth Spaniard to claim a green jacket, captured his fourth win of the year, carded four birdies in his final round and won by four shots.

Augusta National MastersKoepka and another LIV golfer who knows his way around Augusta National Golf Club, then 52-year-old, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, tied for second place at 8-under.

Calm Before the Storms

The practice rounds began with great promise for the 88 players in the field, which included 16 first-time players made up of seven amateurs and nine professionals.

One of the most-watched groups on Monday featured Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Rory McIlroy and tournament newcomer Tom Kim of Korea.

“I love Tom Kim. We set this up at the Presidents Cup, and I think he was a little excited to play with Rory and Tiger,” said Couples.

As much as the foursome enjoyed each other’s company, they also connected with some special patrons. They hugged and high-fived last year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion, Rose Zhang, behind the 12th tee. On the 18th green, they met one of the Drive Chip and Putt winners.

“She goes to the same grade school that Tiger went to, so we made her day,” Couples said.

While this group got along famously, questions had swirled in the weeks leading up to tournament about whether or not PGA Tour and LIV golfers could co-exist amicably at the major.

On Tuesday morning, however, McIlroy indicated that a truce between the warring tours had been declared when he said he and Koepka were playing a pre-planned practice round together that afternoon. Other PGA Tour and LIV golfers practiced together as well.

“I see some of these guys at home. … We sort of practice at the same place,” McIlroy said. “This week and this tournament is way bigger than any of that, I feel, and it’s just great that all of the best players in the world are together again for the first time in what seems to be quite a while.”

In his Wednesday morning press conference, Fred Ridley, Augusta National and Masters Tournament chairman, agreed as he described the atmosphere at the Champions Dinner, where PGA Tour and LIV players shared a table.

“The tone has been really good here this week. I’ve noticed the players are interacting. Last night at the Champions Dinner, I would not have known that anything was going on in the world of professional golf other than the norm,” he said.

Another norm returned to the Masters on Wednesday afternoon as well. After cancellation in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 and a rain-shortened event in 2022, the Par 3 Contest was held in its entirety for the first time in four years.

Bogey-Free Golf

By Thursday, it was time to get down to the business of the tournament, and three players – Rahm, Koepka and Viktor Hovland of Norway – shot 65 to share the first round lead at 7-under par.

After Rahm double bogeyed No. 1, he hit every fairway and played the par 5s in 5-under with an eagle on the eighth hole and birdies on Nos. 2, 13 and 15. He also birdied the third, seventh, 16th and 18th holes.

“You don’t usually get a walk-off birdie over here,” said Rahm, who left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf in December.

Overall, he was pleased with his round, calling it one of the top three in his career at the majors.

“This has to be up there, including the first hole, to be honest, because it was a good tee shot and good second shot. Just a bit of an asterisk on the green,” said Rahm, who felt that, even though the “speed was off,” he had not struck any of the four putts poorly.

Koepka birdied the second, third, seventh, eighth, 12th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes. The only blemish to his round was a bogey on No. 13, which had been lengthened to 545 yards by moving back the Masters tees 35 yards.

An incident also was called into question on the 15th hole when Koepka’s caddie seemed to give advice to the caddie of playing partner Gary Woodland in violation of the rules. Ultimately, however, no penalty was assessed.

“All involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested. Consequently, the committee determined that there was no breach of the rules,” James B. Hyder Jr., chairman of the Competition Committees, said in a statement.

Hovland had a bogey-free round, going out in 31 on the front nine with an eagle on the second hole and birdies on the sixth, eighth and ninth holes. He added birdies on Nos. 11 and 13 coming in.

For the second round, tee times were moved up by half an hour Friday because of rain in the forecast. While Koepka was scheduled to play early in the morning before weather became an issue, Rahm was in the next-to-last threesome to tee off in the afternoon.

With an eagle on No. 8 and birdies on the second, 13th and 15th holes, Koepka played the par 5s in 5-under to finish bogey-free with a 67 and a 36-hole total of 12-under.

A weather delay suspended play for about 20 minutes mid-afternoon. However, after three trees later came crashing down by the 17th tee (no one was injured), play was stopped for the day at 4:22 p.m.

Sitting at 9-under through the front nine, Rahm trailed Koepka by three strokes when second-round play was called. Shooting a pair of 68s, U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett held third place at 8-under.

A Cut Above

With temperatures in the high 40s on Saturday morning, 39 players finished their weather-delayed second round under cold, gray, drizzly skies.

Completing the back nine of his second round in the miserable conditions, Rahm birdied the 12th, 15th and 17th holes but bogeyed Nos. 16 and 18.

“Early this morning, it was very cold. We enjoyed a couple holes without any rain, but … those two holes at the end, 17 and 18, were two absolute monsters. Very happy to finish those even par,” said Rahm, who shot 69 to trail Koepka by two strokes.

Former Masters champions Larry Mize (1987) and Sandy Lyle (1988) had announced that they would be playing in their final tournament last year, but both of them finished Saturday on the wrong side of the cut line. However, two other past champions made history when they were among the 54 players to make the cut.

Making his 31st cut at the tournament with a score of 1-over, Couples, at age 63, became the oldest Masters competitor to qualify for the final two rounds.

Woods also made the cut at the Masters for the 23rd consecutive time, tying Couples and Gary Player for the longest streak in tournament history. Shooting 3-over through 36 holes to make the cut on the number, the five-time champion has never missed qualifying for the final two rounds as a professional.

However, Augusta National announced Sunday morning that Woods had withdrawn from the tournament due to injury after completing seven holes of his third round in the cold, soggy conditions.

For the third round, which got underway at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, players were grouped in threesomes and teed off of Nos. 1 and 10. However, with a dismal forecast that lived up to expectations, the prospect of finishing 54 holes by day’s end was slim.

Courtesy of the chilly temperatures and unrelenting rain, play finally was halted at 3:15 p.m. Not before water started puddling so heavily on the greens that grounds crew members had to squeegee the surfaces so players could putt, though.

The leaders were on the seventh green at the time, and Koepka was four shots clear of Rahm. However, with all of the holes left to play on Sunday, Rahm didn’t think either player would have an advantage.

“When you’re in the position we’re in, adrenaline kicks in and it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

As soon as the third round resumed Sunday morning, Koepka missed an 11-foot putt for par on the par-4 No. 7 and Rahm sank his 9-footer for birdie. In an instant, Koepka’s four-shot lead fell to two strokes.

With Koepka and Rahm shooting identical third-round scores of 73, Koepka sat at 11-under to maintain a two-shot 54-hole lead over Rahm.

The fourth round began at 12:30 p.m. with players teeing off in twosomes on the front and back nines, pitting Rahm and Koepka against each other head-to-head in the final pairing.

Rahm wasted no time asserting himself. Both players parred the first two holes, but the momentum shifted on the third and fourth holes. After Rahm went birdie-par on the two holes and Koepka shot par-bogey, the two men were tied. With a birdie on the par-3 No. 6 to go to 10-under, Rahm found himself alone at the top of the leaderboard – a spot he would not yield.

By the 15th hole, Rahm had stretched his lead to four shots. Koepka narrowed the lead to three strokes with a birdie on No. 16, but a bogey on the 17th hole dropped him four behind again.

Rahm shot 69 in the final round, carding one bogey on No. 9 and birdies on the third, eighth, 13th and 14th holes. Koepka shot 75.

“I led for three rounds, and just didn’t do it on the last day. That’s it. Plain and simple,” Koepka said.

Finishing birdie-birdie, Mickelson shot 65, the low round of the day, to charge up the leaderboard and grab a share of second place after starting the final round 10 shots off the lead.

Rahm finished the tournament with a par on No. 18, but not without making it interesting. Since he had started the tournament with a little drama on his first hole, why not bring some excitement, even though he had a four-shot lead, to the 72nd hole as well?

After sending his tee shot into the rough on the left side of the fairway, he hit a provisional ball – right down the middle of the fairway – in case his original shot could not be found. His first ball was located, and Rahm saved par to claim victory. Once the putt dropped, he pumped his fists and covered his face with his hands.

“We all dream of things like this as players, and you try to visualize what it’s going to be like and what it’s going to feel like. And when I hit that third shot on the (18th) green, and I could tell it was close by the crowd’s reaction, just the wave of emotion of so many things just overtook me,” he said.

As Rahm walked off No. 18, one of the first people to greet him was two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain.

Historic and Humble

After the tournament, Rahm, who was pleased to have won on the 40th anniversary of Ballesteros’ second Masters title, said the history of the game is one of the reasons he plays golf. He also said the 2017 Masters victory of fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia (who also won on Seve’s birthday) gave him “a lot of hope” that he could slip into a green jacket one day.

With all of the history that was made in the 2023 Masters, the new champion also was delighted to learn that he had posted one more record on his resume. By adding a victory at Augusta National to his 2021 U.S. Open title, Rahm became the first European to win the Masters and a U.S. Open.

“If there’s anything better than accomplishing something like this, it’s making history,” said Rahm. “Out of all the accomplishments and the many great players that have come before me, to be the first to do something like that, it’s a very humbling feeling.”

By Betsy Gilliland