Jon Rahm’s perfect start to 2023 continued as he posted 27-under par to secure a single-stroke victory over Davis Thompson in the American Express at La Quinta in Palm Springs.
Playing alongside Thompson in the final group, where the duo began the day tied at -23, Rahm’s wedge game was on point early on, throwing darts at the first and second holes and sinking short birdie putts – the longest from 26 inches – to open up a two-stroke lead, and the victory procession looked a mere formality.
Thompson, a 23-year-old rookie from Alabama, cut his teeth on the Korn Ferry Tour last season, winning once, and quickly found his feet in the big league with a top-10 finish in the season opening Fortnite Championship, and he refused to back down.
Despite missing makeable birdie putts on two of the first three holes, he poured in an eight-footer on the par-3 fourth to reduce the deficit to one, the first sign that the Spaniard wasn’t going to have it all his own way.
Up ahead, Xander Schauffele was putting together one of the rounds of the week, going bogey-free with seven birdies and an incredible albatross at the par-5 fifth. With 225 yards for his second shot, the pin tucked back right and guarded by water, Schauffele carried the hazard by inches and watched as the ball disappeared into the hole much to the jubilation of those in attendance. That, with the seven birdies, helped the American to a closing 62, matched only by Eric Van Rooyen.
But it was too little, too late for Schauffele, and his clubhouse lead at 25-under was never really likely to be enough.
But Rahm’s putter had gone surprisingly cold. He lipped out from close range at the fifth and eighth holes, and left it on the lip at the tenth, but then he holed a seven-footer for birdie at the ninth. Thompson, meanwhile, had found his range. Despite making a mess of the par-5 fifth, he poured in a 47-footer on the sixth and a 27-footer on the ninth and entered the back nine again just one shot behind the hottest player in world golf.
They traded birdies on the par-5 11th, but Rahm’s putting was still a little suspect and he missed a short par putt on the 13th which allowed Thompson to get back on level terms.
At this point, Taylor Montgomerie and Chris Kirk were firmly in the mix, but neither were able to keep pressing over the closing stretch, the former with a costly double-bogey on the penultimate hole which ended his chances of victory.
Rahm was feeling the heat, and his approach on the 14th missed long and right, as Thompson gave himself a great look at birdie from below the hole. A decent recovery gave Rahm seven feet for par and a two-shot swing was a in play, but Thompson overbought the break and Rahm made no mistake.
Ultimately, the par-5 16th was the difference. A poor drive left Thompson in the bunker with no option but to lay up a long way back, but Rahm, in the fairway, went for the green. It wasn’t the former world number one’s greatest approach shot, skirting with the canyon-like bunker up the left-hand side, but fortune favoured the Spaniard, and a favourable bounce left him chipping up the green with his third. He’d make birdie to Thompson’s par, and Rahm was back in the driving seat.
On the 17th, Thompson’s long birdie putt looked destined for the bottom of the cup, hitting the flag but somehow bouncing out, and though there was a little pace on the ball, it’s likely that had the pin been out, the ball would’ve dropped.
With Rahm in the bunker on the last, Thompson’s adrenalin was running a little high and his approach from the fairway carried a few yards further than planned, and he ran through the green into a swale just behind. Rahm’s approach from the bunker was clutch, finding the middle of the putting surface and leaving himself 17 feet up the hill for birdie, which he’d ultimately be able to two-putt after Thompson’s valiant chip rolled just by to the right.
In what was the story of the day, somehow Rahm’s birdie putt didn’t drop, but he had the simplest of tap-ins to claim his second successive victory and climb to number three in the world.
“I did talk about how good my putting had been,” Rahm would say afterwards, “and today didn’t really play any different. Ball striking was great, I hit a lot of great putts, it’s just golf, and luckily I made the ones I really needed to make like the ones on 14 and 16.
“I’m not gonna lie, I thought the ones on 17 and 18 were in as well, but luckily, it was enough.
“Had I had the same putting I had yesterday or Friday, it would’ve probably been a runaway victory but you can’t ask for everything, so, you learn from every single situation and today was definitely a stressful day.”
With four wins in his last six starts and no finishes outside the top 10 in seven tournaments, Rahm now heads to Torrey Pines, site of his maiden PGA Tour win and also his US Open triumph in 2021, seeking to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2008 to win his first three starts in a calendar year, with the fiery Spaniard now a combined -54 through eight competitive rounds.