U.S. Open: Rahm outduels Oosthuizen to win first major

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LA JOLLA, Calif. — For about an hour, the U.S. Open had one of the greatest leaderboards in recent golf history, with almost all of the game's biggest names within two shots of the lead. But then Torrey Pines whittled away the competitors, and down the stretch, only Jon Rahm and Louis Oosthuizen remained standing. 

One was the pre-tournament favorite. The other was a perpetual bridesmaid, winner of one major but a second-place finisher in five more. In the end, Oosthuizen was a runner-up yet again, with Rahm capturing the first of what could be many majors. 

Majors are always about storylines and a few surprises. This 121st edition of the U.S. Open was no different.

Questions were abound about the form of Rahm, fresh out of COVID protocol. How would he respond to the gut-wrenching forced withdrawal at The Memorial, where he held 6-stroke lead through three rounds? Turns out, pretty well. 

Would the budding Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau rivalry come to a head? Not really, though the Brooksy Bros, mostly silent through the first two rounds, came out in full force on Saturday ... and watch DeChambeau climb up the leaderboard while their boy stood mostly pat.

What about Rory McIlroy's now infamous first-round struggles in a major? Since 2015, he'd been a combined 35-over par in first rounds, 60-under in rounds 2-4. It's an insane stat that has left McIlroy, once the heir-apparent to you-know-who without a major since 2014. Thursday he carded a 1-under 71, which meant he didn't shoot himself out of contention and, lo and behold, he started Sunday's final round in a tie for fourth, just two shots off the lead.

The surprise of the tournament, at least through two rounds, was 48-year-old journeyman Richard Bland. Bland hadn't won a single tournament until he broke through last month at the Betfred British Masters, making him 1-for-478 in his European Tour career. The win qualified him for just his fourth major as a professional, a span that goes all the way back to 1998. Taking full advantage, Bland found himself atop the leaderboard after 36 holes only to fall back with a disappointing 77 on Saturday.

The final round set up to be an all-out shootout, with 13 players within four strokes of the lead. And it was impossible not to think about the potential of a playoff and remember back to the last time Torrey Pines hosted a U.S. Open. That was back in 2008, when the USGA format called for a Monday 18-hole playoff in the event of a tie. There was one between Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods who, on a broken leg, came away victorious.

There was no Tiger here this time around. He's still recovering from the February car accident that left him with a severely broken leg and months of rehab that's still ongoing. But there was McIlroy and DeChambeau and Rahm and Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele — all big names within four shots of the leaders, Mackenzie Hughes, Louis Oosthuizen and Russell Henley.

Oosthuizen has been here before, having won The Open back in 2010 and finishing second at the other three majors. Hughes, meanwhile, had only made the cut twice in a handful of majors and had never finished better than 40th. As for Henley, he hadn't qualified for a U.S. Open since 2018 and his best finish came in 2010 when he tied for 16th as the low amateur. 

If they were keeping an eye on the leaderboard as they finished their warmups, the leaders must have wanted to jump the gun and get to the first tee as soon as they could. Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa and Brooks Koepka all led off with birdies to close the gap. Rahm birdied his first two holes to cannonball his way into the conversation, and from there, the horse race was on.

Unfortunately for the overnight leaders, the pace was too quick for them to handle. Henley bogeyed his first hole to fall out of the lead, and Hughes bogeyed three of his first six to eject himself from the championship conversation … or so it seemed at the time.

Ahead of them, the biggest names in the game were living up to their reputations. McIlroy rolled in a long, curling 35-foot putt on the 4th to get to -4. DeChambeau matched him with a birdie on the 5th. Oosthuizen wobbled, bogeying the 4th, and Henley — as had been his routine all week — pinballed back and forth between bogeys and birdies.

When Henley, briefly in the solo lead at -5, dropped a stroke on the 6th, that vaulted McIlroy, DeChambeau and Oosthuizen into a tie for first. Six other players sat one stroke back.

Then came one of the key shots of the day: DeChambeau’s tee shot on 8, which landed literally one inch from the cup. The easiest tap-in of the tournament, and DeChambeau had the solo lead at -5. He would hold that solo lead for several holes — McIlroy, Rahm, Morikawa and McIlroy all missed birdie putts that would have tied DeChambeau — until finally Oosthuizen birdied the 9th to get back into a tie for the lead.

And then the last of the field turned for home, and the action turned up another notch. Far ahead, Koepka was taking chunks out of DeChambeau’s lead, birdieing five holes over his first 15 to draw within a single stroke. Playing 90 minutes ahead of the leaders, he dropped a stroke on the 16th.

DeChambeau saw a streak of 30 straight bogey-free holes end on the 11th, giving Oosthuizen solo share of the lead, and literally seconds after DeChambeau missed, Oosthuizen drained a 28-foot birdie on the 10th, giving him an instant two-shot lead.

The challengers began struggling. McIlroy bogeyed the 11th, his first dropped shot of the day. Morikawa double-bogeyed the 13th to fall four strokes off the lead. Koepka missed a birdie by half the width of the ball on 17 that would have lifted him to -4, then bogeyed 18 as well. Hughes put a ball into a tree — yes, really — and tumbled down the leaderboard with a double bogey.

DeChambeau followed his bogey on 11 with another dropped shot on 12. His walk up 13 was interrupted by, of all things, an intruder who ran onto the fairway. DeChambeau then double-bogeyed the hole and effectively canned his chances for the tournament.

That meant that a 10-horse race had dwindled to a head-to-head duel: Rahm vs Oosthuizen. 

Rahm saw a birdie attempt on 15 pop out of the hole, and another on 16 miss by inches. Meanwhile, Oosthuizen sank a knee-knocker of a putt on 13 to remain one stroke ahead of Rahm. Well ahead, Harris English posted a clubhouse lead of -3, setting the mark that Rahm and Oosthuizen would need to beat. 

Rahm seized a share of the lead on the 17th when he curled in a 24-foot putt on the 17th, a miraculous recovery given that he'd put his tee shot into the sand. Then came the 18th, one of the easiest finishing holes in major championship history. Rahm put his approach shot into the sand, then rolled in a brilliant 18-foot putt to birdie the hole and take a one-stroke lead. 

From there, all he could do was wait for Oosthuizen, three holes behind. Oosthuizen escaped with a long par on 16 but following a penalty couldn't convert his par putt on 17, leaving him two strokes behind Rahm and needing an eagle on 18 to force a tie. As Rahm waited out the minutes on the range, Oosthuizen put his tee shot just ahead of a fairway bunker. He couldn't reach the green from that angle, and had only a miracle attempt from 69 yards away out on the fairway. The shot couldn't quite find the hole, and Rahm had captured his first major. 

Tournament favorite Jon Rahm won his first major Sunday. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Tournament favorite Jon Rahm won his first major Sunday. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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