Making comparisons to Tiger Woods is a fool’s errand; however, drawing parallels to arguably the greatest player of all time is a different story. Drawing a parallel is exactly the approach World No. 1 Jon Rahm is taking ahead of the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational as he seeks his fourth victory of 2023 and sixth in his last 10 worldwide starts this week at Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Rahm’s current run does evoke a feeling only Woods could appreciate. With his win at the 2023 Genesis Invitational, he became the fastest player to three titles in a calendar year since Johnny Miller in 1975. Claims of being “inevitable” have been tossed around the internet. Nicknames such as “The Buoy” have been voiced. Despite this stretch of greatness and his habitual presence on the first page of leaderboards, the Spaniard has yet to piece the entire puzzle together for all four days of competition.
“The thing is, you don’t need to be firing on all cylinders to win,” said Rahm. “I actually had a conversation similar to this with Tiger. I asked him, Out of the 82 wins on the PGA Tour, I didn’t get into the other ones, how many times do you think you played your best all four days? And he said, Three, at most. Right? A lot of those Sundays he played his best, but the whole week, very few.”
The scary thing is: Rahm is right.
At the Tournament of Champions which featured a field of 38 players, Rahm ranked 33rd in strokes gained approach. At The American Express, he lost more than two strokes putting in his two measured rounds on the Stadium Course at PGA West. At the Genesis Invitational, Rahm struggled around the green and drove the ball poorly relative to his standards. Still, the wins keep on coming.
So this begs the question: What does firing on all cylinders look like to Rahm, and has it happened before?
“I’ve gotten to enjoy a really good form of golf. The one time I can say I was firing on all cylinders I didn’t get to finish the tournament,” Rahm said, referencing the 2021 Memorial Tournament. “So I would have wished to see what that was like. It all depends on who you’re talking to and what level. A lot of us are such perfectionists that I think we play close to that A-plus game a lot, but we don’t give ourselves that, quite that grade for all four days. I think a lot of us probably, you know, that’s why probably Tiger said maybe just a few times in his career.”
Before being forced to withdraw following the third round from the 2021 Memorial due to a positive COVID-19 test, Rahm had built up a six-stroke lead over the field. He was averaging +5.12 strokes gained tee to green, +1.37 strokes gained off the tee, +3.05 strokes gained approach, +0.70 strokes gained around the green and +1.88 strokes gained putting per round.
He was gaining seven strokes on the field per day.
Those instances are few and far between; they don’t make a career if it unfolds at a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour stop, but they make a week. The greats can win with their B game, maybe even their C game, as Woods did all too often en route to his 82 PGA Tour victories and as Rahm is doing at times currently.
For the greatest ever, perfection occurred at just three tournaments. For the greatest right now, just once for three days. Yet it is this yearning which makes them who they are. The quest to reach new heights, the quest to go where no golfer has gone before, the search for the unattainable. The mindset served Woods well, and it is proving to do the same for Rahm.
“Well, 2000 U.S. Open, 2000 Open Championship, and I think you can pick any other 2000 win,” Rahm said of Woods’ three tournaments referenced. “Those two, I kind of brought up and he said he agreed to those two. I don’t know what other one…
“No, [it wasn’t the 1997 Masters] because on that front nine he shot 4-over … He only won by 12. Imagine that.”