This week the best golfers in the world will descend on Augusta, Ga. for the Masters, which moved from April to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Augusta National Golf Club will look a lot different than in years past, as the typical bloom of azaleas in the spring is traded in for the orange and reds of leaves changing in the fall, but for those playing, it remains a familiar venue.
Jon Rahm is among the favorites to win the Masters this year, entering as the second-ranked player in the world and holding 10-1 odds to win his first major championship. Rahm’s recent form this year is a big reason for the optimism about his chances, but so is how he’s played at Augusta in recent years, with back-to-back top 10s. Unlike the other three majors that rotate venues every year, the Masters provides players with a familiarity unlike any other major and as such those that play well at Augusta National always feel good about their chances each year.
On top of that, Rahm seems to be dialed in during the practice rounds as he’s made a pair of holes in one, one on Monday at No. 4 and then a skipping shot across the pond on 16 that went viral on Tuesday.
On Monday, we got a chance to speak with Rahm over the phone after he taped a conversation with Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler for Mercedes-Benz, which fans can watch on Mercedes’ Instagram page at 5 p.m. ET. The world’s No. 2 player walked us through Augusta National, why it’s such a great test of your overall game, the nuances and difficulties that aren’t as obvious on TV, why the short par-3 12th is such a difficult hole, and much more.
It’s unique to be headed to Augusta in November. How are you feeling and how are you feeling about your game as you get ready for this now final major of the year?
Well, I’m happy. I’m happy in my life, I’m happy in my golf game. So I’m really excited to get this week going. That’s the best way I can explain it.
You’ve had a couple top 10s in back-to-back years at Augusta and I think this is a course, maybe more than any other, that the experience and learning it makes such a difference. How much different do you feel when you step onto the grounds now compared to when you first went to Augusta in terms of the confidence and knowing the shots you’re going to have to hit?
Obviously I’m a lot more comfortable, and every time you play you learn something new. It’s amazing. Every time I get to play with some of the guys who have played here for a long time, and they can tell you certain things and it’s like learning from an Augusta National encyclopedia. It’s just amazing the info we can retain. It helps and it’s crazy how many shots and putts and chips, especially shots around the green, that we play out of muscle memory. It’s unbelievable. I’m pretty sure people that have played here a long time, like Phil and Tiger and any of the other players who have had great success, you could just bring them here with no practice rounds and put the course in tournament shape and they’d for sure be able to play. Because you’re just playing those shots and those putts out of muscle memory, right, and you can just feel how you have to hit it when you’re hitting a putt. It’s just crazy what happens, because we play here so much and it’s got so much trick to it. But every time you come back you’ve just got to get those feelings back and make sure is in order.
You mentioned on the talk with Rickie and Ian … something I really enjoyed you saying was how much the course changes and how much in tournament condition you have to learn when to be aggressive and when to play to spots. Like you talked about on 13 and knowing the places not to hit it. What has been the process of that and was that the biggest thing for you in growing comfortable and being able to have that success at this course?
Yeah, I think because when you see on TV you only see the leaders and you only see birdies and what you can do. You see the Sunday pins, like No. 2 how it all funnels in there. You see No. 4 how on the right you have the backstop. You see shots into No. 7 that funnel towards the pin, and many other shots – 13 with people using the backstop, 16. You see all these moments where balls go in or they go close, and you think, “Man, you can make a million birdies out here.” And that is so far from the truth. Yeah, you can, but they’re not showing you all the mistakes and how fast double bogeys can happen at Augusta National and actually how good of a shot you need to hit to give yourself a chance.
I don’t think people realize how hard that plateau on 6 and that tiny area on the top right is, and how small the back area of No. 1 green is on the back right or short left or back right of 4. It’s things you don’t realize, so the first time I came here I was so aggressive, and yeah I made a lot of birdies, but I still made a lot of mistakes. So it’s being able to pick your battles. Like Ian said, sometimes having 30 feet is not the worst thing. The best way I can explain it is, No. 6, if you have that back left pin and you keep it 30 feet short, maybe a little left of the hole, you have a straight uphill putt. It might be breaking at most a ball or a cup, but it’s 30 feet on perfect greens, so you might be able to make a few of those. There are other examples out there. The back left pin on 9, you don’t have to hit it all the way back there. If you hit it in the middle tier and leave yourself 25 feet, it’s not a big breaking putt, you might have a chance to make it. Those situations, you can put yourself in.
Now, the biggest thing I’ve taken from Augusta National statistically that play under par are the par 5s. Even those are not that far under par. They take turns each year on which one plays easiest – I think most years 13 plays easiest – which means pars are never bad on par 5s. You shouldn’t be pressing too hard to make birdies or eagles because you’re not really losing that much. Or holes like No. 3, which is 350 [yards], you hit a good drive and in my case you might have a flip wedge onto the green. If you make par you’re not really losing strokes to anybody, and I think that’s one of the lessons you can learn. Hit the middle of the green, two putt, that’s not a bad thing even down the stretch. You need to learn to pick your battles. Some days you’re going to hit it better than others, but even the days you’re hitting it good, it’s tough to give yourself that many birdie chances out here.
I think it’s funny, every person that goes to Augusta, I think the first thing they notice is that sloping. And it’s this tired thing where people who haven’t been get tired of hearing you just don’t understand how much everything is sloped from fairways to the greens, everything has so much tilt to it.
Oh my gosh [laughs].
And you don’t notice it til you walk the grounds.
Listen, I don’t think people understand how hard the lies we have in the fairways are. How hard, if you hit a good tee shot on 2 and you get it past the bunker, you have a severe downslope and the ball’s below your feet and you’re hitting a 6, 5, 4 iron into a sideways green, usually with a sidewind. I mean, it’s ridiculous how hard it is to hit that green and keep it on the right spot, right. It’s incredible, say No. 5 now. You hit driver on No. 5 you have the ball way above your feet on an uphill lie. If it’s into the wind you have a very long iron into a difficult green. Same with 8. That is extremely uphill and you’re hitting a wood or a long iron into it 200 plus yards on a severe uphill lie. Same on 18. The shot on 13, yeah you see it standing there, but they don’t realize how above your feet that ball is.
And like I said earlier in the interview, you see so many balls right, but missing left is not that good of an option either. So getting up and down from the right for par and up and down from the left for birdie is not easy. You see more pars and birdies from the left and a lot of pars from the right. It’s crazy how hitting that ball in the water you’re not losing that much either. It’s absolutely crazy. The shot into 14 with the ball below your feet, 15 if you hit it down enough you’re downhill with the ball above your feet again. It’s absolutely crazy all those lies can be and the undulations on the green and all those things, and I don’t think you can see all of that on TV as well. All the run ups on the green and the depth on certain bunkers – those bunkers on 18 are as deep as can be and most of the fairway bunkers are extremely deep, and you can’t appreciate that on TV. I really wish everybody could get to see it just to appreciate shots certain players hit in certain moments, because they’re better than what they look like on camera.
Absolutely. Do you have any favorite shots on the course? Any spots you really love when you get to that hole or an approach or tee shot you just really like?
It’s hard to pick one because I love so many of them, but I think for me especially when everything’s blooming, that tee shot on 11 is beautiful. It’s such a hard hole, but it’s simple. No bunkers, it’s just fairway, rough, and trees. It’s simple but it’s beautiful. It’s one of the ones I like the most.
On the flip side, what is one of the toughest shots you have to execute out there?
I think the toughest tee shot for me is 17. The toughest iron shot, by far, is No. 12, especially if it’s windy. If there’s no wind, it’s not difficult, but if there’s any wind, that hole can be diabolical. Because the amount of wind gusts you get, and that’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough is how much the wind can fluctuate in seconds.
And it swirls in that corner over at 12. You’ll see guys that are staring at 11 pin and the trees above 12 and they’ll be moving in a couple different directions.
Yes. It’s crazy because you can see the 12th flag moving one direction, the 11th flag moving another direction and you’re only 100 yards apart. You can feel something completely different to those two, and then the trees above 11 and 13 are also a discrepancy. So it’s absolutely nuts. You get to that tee, it’s crazy. What happened last year with Francesco, Tony, I think Poulter, and Brooks hitting it in the water, it was like five of the last six guys or four of the last six players. It’s not because they hit bad shots. I would dare to say most of those were good shots. It’s mainly the wind switches and the gusts and yeah you see guys go in the water, but missing it long is not a great option. You’re gonna make four not a five, but it’s not like you’re trying to hit it long on purpose. People don’t see on TV the shots that end up in the trees, because it happens [laughs]. It’s crazy how difficult it can get. If it’s not that windy it’s not the hardest shot in the world, but it’s intimidating for everybody.
You guys are supposed to get some weather this week. How do you prepare for a Masters where you could see rain and could see that wind messing around timing some?
Well when it comes to the course we just hope the greens don’t get too damaged. A lot of what Augusta National is and the way it plays is the greens. With the sub-air obviously they can manage that as well as possible. The fairways may play a little bit slower and a little bit longer, which means longer clubs into the greens and that’s the only thing I can say. There have been years where it’s rained and played long, I believe it was 17 there was some rain and it played a little bit longer. But we’re no strangers to the rain, we just hope it’s not too harsh and we can play through it and compete and play in the tournament without too many stops.
I know you guys talked about this and being used to not playing with fans this year, but that’s so much a part of Augusta and the atmosphere with the roars, especially down the stretch on Sunday. Is that something you’ve thought about it being particularly strange at this place, especially if you’re in the hunt on Sunday, not being able to hear out for those roars?
I think it’s going to be different in a good way, meaning hopefully we’re only going to experience Augusta National without patrons once. And I think we have to cherish those memories. We know whoever wins this year is going to be somebody who we’ll remember for a long time because they’re winning in November and it’s a different year. I think that’s going to be something to remember. We miss fans and we’ll miss the atmosphere, but I think it’s going to be different in a good way and how special of a year it is and how thankful we are to actually be playing the Masters this year.
You were part of what I think has been my favorite golf moment this year, and that was the finish to the BMW, with you and DJ.
Haha, thank you.
I want to ask you what was that like, because it wasn’t a major but it felt like a major moment with 1 and 2 in the world going at it?
It was extremely fun. It’s crazy because I started that week I was so far back of the lead I was like, let’s see if we can sneak into a top 10, top 5, and we got into that final round three off the lead and I was like, OK it’s going to take a good day. If I can shoot even par or under par, I can have a shot at the top 10 and maybe a top 5. And I started off on fire, birdied 1, birdied 4, then I birdied 10 and I was 3-under, and I was like, well, you know things are looking pretty good and maybe I can keep this going and have a chance. I sure played some good golf down the stretch and the birdies on 15 and 16 were key.
Everybody remembers that putt in the playoff, but that third shot on the par 5 on 15. The 6 iron I hit there and the 6 iron I hit on the next hole were really, really, really good. That birdie on the par 5 after having to chip out was a key momentum shifter for me to be able to be aggressive towards the end and play good. Obviously the playoff, to see what DJ did and for me to come back and hit a longer putt on top of him was surreal. You always dream of those battles and dream of coming out on top of those, and I’m just glad we could put on such a good show and such a good finish, because it was fun to play and I’m sure it was fun to watch.
It was. You’re partnered with Mercedes this week who is a big partner with the Masters, and what does it mean to be able to work with them and do this talk with Rickie and Ian and give fans a glimpse behind the scenes on a week like this where there won’t be patrons there?
Well, I’m just really thankful I was accepted a few years back as a Mercedes ambassador. Mercedes is a worldwide brand with a really high standard and they can be picky, they’ve earned the right to be picky with their ambassadors. So I’m extremely thankful to be one of them, especially this week. They’ve been supporting golf for so long in such a good way, especially the Masters too. It’s a unique week for all of us, and the fact that they put me, Ian, and Rickie together to have fun, messing around with the cars outside and then being able to do our interview and have fun with Michael and each other. It’s something we miss and something we’re trying to do as much as possible for the fans nowadays and bring a smile for people having a hard time. COVID hasn’t been easy for anyone and we’re extremely thankful to be competing like we have this year. So much like we’ve done on the golf course, we’re just glad we could put on a little bit of a show off of it as well.