Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Why Jon Rahm remains underrated, underappreciated despite current run as No. 1 golfer in the world

Cameron Smith kickstarted the golf year on Sunday by shooting 34 under to win the Tournament of Champions in Maui, which was something that had never been done before in the history of the PGA Tour. Somehow, it’s not even the most impressive thing he did this past weekend.

Paired with world No. 1 Jon Rahm from Saturday morning onward for the remaining 36 holes, Smith never trailed — not for a single hole — despite the fact that Rahm tossed a 61-66 at him, allowing him to now hold the second-lowest score to par in the history of the PGA Tour. Smith warded off the fanciest kitchen sink in the world to win the biggest tournament of his career.

While this year’s event at Kapalua should be remembered for what Smith accomplished, it should not be forgotten in Rahm’s long march as the No. 1 player in the world — a spot he’s held now for six straight months. While it’s true that his last 12 months of golf have somehow only included one victory, it’s also true that he’s playing a level of golf on the PGA Tour that’s difficult to fully comprehend from an historical perspective.

We already know that Rahm’s Data Golf index, a 150-round rolling strokes gained average, reached No. 4 in the all-time rankings in the strokes gained era (since 2004) and last year reached the highest number since Tiger Woods was playing unfathomable golf in 2006-08. Rahm’s number was 2.72 strokes gained at the end of the 2021 Tour Championship, which means that, based on data over the course of the 150 rounds leading into that Tour Championship, he was expected to beat average PGA Tour fields by 2.72 strokes per round. This is an insanely high number. If you’re averaging a 2.0 or higher number, you’re generally considered a top-five player in the world.

It gets crazier, though. Here are Rahm’s field-adjusted strokes gained numbers over his last nine PGA Tour events, according to Data Golf.

  • PGA Championship: 2.4 SG
  • Memorial: 7.3 SG
  • U.S. Open: 3.9 SG
  • Open Championship: 3.3 SG
  • Northern Trust: 3.8 SG
  • BMW Championship: 2.6 SG
  • Tour Championship: 3.7 SG
  • Fortinet Championship: -0.54 SG
  • Tournament of Champions: 4.4 SG

Some back-of-the-napkin math puts his eight-month strokes-gained average at right around 3.5, which is absolutely outrageous. The best measured stretch in history is Tiger’s run that ended in January 2008 where he was sitting at 3.9 strokes gained on the Data Golf index. Rahm will have to keep this pace for an extended period — remember the index runs 150 rolling rounds — and even improve upon it to catch Tiger’s silly number, but the clip he’s playing at is truly under-appreciated given how few tournaments he’s won in that span of time.

We should remember here that it takes outstanding weeks, not just good ones, to win tournaments. You can gain 2.5 strokes per round every round for the rest of your career, and you’re probably not going to win very many tournaments. What you want are weeks like Rahm has been having where he’s gaining between 3.5 and 4.0 strokes. That’s what results in wins — apparently except for Rahm.

And the wins do matter. They do! These strokes gained numbers do three things, though. They give you an appreciation for how well Rahm is playing golf (discussed above). They give you an appreciation for the ways in which he’s been beat, of which there are many. And they are instructive of what’s to come.

“There’s a lot of positives to take,” Rahm said, stating the obvious after his runner-up finish at Kapalua on Sunday. “There’s some stuff I’ve been working on in the offseason that was a lot better today. Some of those flighted wedges I hit this week were a lot better than they have been in the past. I still can improve quite a bit, but it’s moving and trending in the right direction, so I’m happy with that.

“My iron play was really, really good. I know I’m usually ball-striking, but it felt amazing and I hit a lot of great shots today, and even putting was great. My Achilles heel on this golf course has been putting, and this is the first time I putted good and putted great. So hopefully I can keep that going throughout the season and give myself a lot more chances to win.”

Rick Gehman, Kyle Porter, Greg DuCharme and Mark Immelman react to Cameron Smith’s victory at the 2022 Sentry Tournament of Champions. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Golf at this level can be torturous because it’s one of the only sports where you cannot control what your opponent does. If you’re getting lit up on third down in the NFL, your defensive line can change that. If your closing ability in baseball is suspect, get a better bullpen. If teams in the NBA are destroying you with their half-court defense, there’s a fix! In golf? Not so much. That, if anything, was the lesson at Kapalua over the weekend when three different players reset the PGA Tour’s score to par record, and two of them walked away empty-handed.

That’s important to remember because it’s probably a harbinger of what’s to come for Rahm. If he continues to play at this level, he almost certainly won’t continue to get beat like this. In the 150 rounds leading into that 3.9 Data Golf Index number for Tiger in 2008 — just below where Rahm has been for his last 30+ rounds — Woods won 18 times in 37 events. Eighteen times. That’s nearly Rory McIlroy’s entire career.

Golf has gotten better in the middle since Tiger was torching the planet, and the fields overall are now probably stronger, but it would not be surprising for Rahm to win three, four or five times throughout the rest of this year. if he can keep the pace. And as long as his weekly odds remain at 9-1 or 10-1 depending on the tournament, he’s a hell of a weekly bet.

We are underrating Jon Rahm right now. This is seemingly impossible to do when you’re the No. 1 player in the world, but because he’s won just once in the last 16 months on the PGA Tour, we’re selling short his skills. According to Data Golf, Rahm is a decent closer, but everything of late has broken against him. That’s not going to last forever, and a course correction here is almost certainly going to result in a windfall of trophies for, statistically, perhaps the best golfer we’ve seen in the last 15 years.

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