Saturday, June 25, 2022

2022 Mexico Open: Jon Rahm looks to regain his early-season form as the heavy favorite at Vidanta Vallarta

It’s rare in this era to see a golfer in a PGA Tour event at shorter than 8-1 odds to win a tournament. This week’s Mexico Open at Vidanta is an exception, though, because the chasm between the best golfer in the field — Jon Rahm — and everyone else is quite wide. Rahm, as a result, has 9/2 odds to win his first tournament of 2022.

This is perhaps a surprise. Not that Rahm is such a heavy favorite to win the first Mexico Open affiliated with the PGA Tour (the event dates back to the 1940s), but rather that Rahm has not won since the calendar flipped. If you would have told me that Rahm would be sniffing May without a victory the day he finished runner-up to Cam Smith at the year-opening Tournament of Champions, I would have laughed. But here we are.

Rahm has not played poor golf this year, and in the wake of that near-miss at Kapalua, he was exceptional. He followed that with three top 15s in his next three start with one of them a T3 at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he won the U.S. Open last summer. Since that performance in January, he’s fallen off the pace a bit. Well, fallen off his pace. For 95% of PGA Tour players, this would be a dream year.

Rahm, however, exists on a different plane than your run-of-the-mill PGA Tour pro. He wins a lot and is thus dissatisfied with not winning in a way average pros are not.

Rahm’s last month has been a disappointment by his standards. A T55 at the Players Championship and a T27 at the Masters sandwiched a nice Round of 16 appearance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. But it’s those big events that allure the best players to play their highest-quality golf. Rahm has not done that in the biggest events so far this year, and that is perhaps why he’s playing during a down week on Tour — to prepare for the PGA Championship at Southern Hills at the end of May.

The good news for Rahm is that what’s ailing his game is not detrimental in the long term. The Ryder Cup hero is driving it like a monster — as well as he’s ever driven the ball. His ball-striking remains world class. Since Jan. 1, he’s been the best ball-striker in the world by a wide margin. He gains 2.2 strokes per round on the average PGA Tour field, and the next closest competitor, Will Zalatoris, is at 2.0.

Rahm’s issue thus far has been an inability to capitalize on his immense ball-striking because of a short game that has been lacking. His baseline in strokes gained short game (around the greens and putting) is between 0.5 and 1.0 strokes gained per round. Right now, he’s hovering just below 0.0. That doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it has affected his ability to score in bunches and thus his ability to truly contend in tournaments.

“It was a good start to the year, the first few events of the year,” said Rahm. “I would say, I could say numbers-wise it hasn’t been my best, but, you know, I’ve been practicing hard, feeling confident. It’s just golf. Sometimes you’re feeling good if things happen. Actually, golf is life. Sometimes you just don’t get the results you want. I keep putting in the work, so very positive about the future. I’m happy with the state of where my game’s at right now.”

Rick Gehman is joined by Kyle Porter, Jonathan Coachman and Mark Immelman to preview the 2022 Mexico Open and discuss the biggest headlines in golf this week. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

The good news for Rahm is that there is some precedent here. He had a weird stretch last year where he missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship and finished T34 at the Byron Nelson before going on an absolute tear through the rest of 2021. His short game was a bit down during that period, but he closed with seven top 10s in his next eight events, including that U.S. Open trophy. The only finish outside the top 10 was when he had to withdraw after Round 3 of the Memorial Tournament after testing positive for COVID-19. He led by six at the time.

The bad news for Rahm is that he hasn’t had this kind of extended slump with his short game before. He has claimed that his short game numbers look bad because he’s hitting it so well. I want to buy this because I think it does have some merit, but something is up because Rahm switched out putters at the end of the Genesis Invitational, and then again before the Players Championship. This is not a massive issue — Rahm switched putters right before his U.S. Open win last year — but it does indicate that Rahm is not necessarily satisfied with where his putting is at either.

There is plenty of runway for him to figure it out. Most of the major championship slate still remains, and he’s hitting it as brilliantly as he ever has as a professional. If the short game pops back up, and we have several years’ worth of evidence to believe that it will, then those 9/2 odds are going to look long when you consider how much better Rahm is than the rest of this field.

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