Kragthorpe: Masters rookie Jon Rahm is one to watch, as young stars hit Augusta

First Published      Last Updated Apr 24 2017 09:52 pm

Augusta, Ga.

Warm weather is coming this weekend, when Augusta National Golf Club will have the pristine look that everyone pictures about this place.

That's not the forecast for the first two rounds, though. Gusting winds will buffet the course Thursday and Friday, and that's why my No. 1 player to watch this week is a rookie who has stormed onto the PGA Tour. And you could have seen him play in Salt Lake City for free last spring.

Jon Rahm is the latest in a series of young stars who is taking over pro golf and be a big story at the 2017 Masters, one way or another. Have you noticed? The Tiger Woods era is being replaced by a committee. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are among the players on everybody's list of favorites to win the green jacket this week, and any of them would be a great story.

Rahm's rise would top them all, and he's capable of winning. The way he performed in difficult conditions at The Country Club of Salt Lake City last May convinced me of his talent and toughness, traits he will need in the wind at Augusta National.

Rahm, then an Arizona State golfer, came to town for the Pac-12 Men's Golf Championship as the world's No. 1-ranked amateur player and performed at that standard. That was especially true Sunday, when the cold wind roared down Parleys Canyon and made things so unpleasant that the tournament director was surprised when all of the volunteers reported as scheduled.

The Sun Devil from Spain thrived when others faded. His closing 68 was nearly eight strokes better than the field's average that day, when he started the round six shots off the lead and won by four. And now he's No. 12 in the Official World Golf Ranking, a winner of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January and the most consistent player in the PGA Tour's 2016-17 season that started in October.

Here he is at Augusta, where Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain both won two Masters titles. "It really is a place that seems to suit the Spanish game character, the Spanish way of playing," Rahm said this week.

Like any Masters rookie, including Utahn Daniel Summerhays, Rahm's mission is to overcome the overwhelming feeling of being at Augusta National. Rahm experienced that sensation in the U.S. Open, and he learned from it.

"I know it's going to happen, but I want it to go away as soon as possible," he said. "It happened at Oakmont, before I realized I was 7 over par."

Rahm didn't finish that story, but he should have. Playing as an amateur, he salvaged an opening-round 76 then shot 69-72-70 to tie for 23rd place. He turned pro and posted two top-three finishes last summer, and his game just has kept coming.

"He's got all the shots you want or need," Fowler said.

Rahm placed second and third in two recent World Golf Championship tournaments, including a loss to Johnson in the finals of the Match Play event. His ability to shape shots in either direction and show creativity around the greens will be tested in the Masters, but he likes the challenge of the putting adventures that Augusta National will offer.

He proved that at Torrey Pines, where his 60-foot, downhill, twisting eagle putt clinched his first PGA Tour victory. There will be many more to come, maybe even this week.

Summerhays will launch the first official drive of the 2017 Masters early Thursday, right after Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit ceremonial shots. The morning starters will have the advantage of softer greens after Wednesday's rain. The wind will have dried the course by the early afternoon when Rahm tees off, so scoring will be more difficult.

If he plays anywhere near the way he did in Salt Lake City last spring, he'll keep himself in the game.


Twitter: @tribkurt