So we're doing this again, eh? Another Jon Rahm week?
Another Jon Rahm week. That's what it seems, at least. Making his first start since fending off Max Homa to win the Genesis Invitational, Rahm opened the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a preposterously good seven-under 65 at Bay Hill, which might be hardest non-major golf course on the PGA Tour. He held the solo lead when he signed his card around 5 p.m. local time in Orlando.
The guy has lived near the top of leaderboards this year—he's won five of his last nine starts and has had a legitimate chance to win each of his last five tournaments—and wasted zero time asserting himself yet again on Thursday. Teeing off in the afternoon wave, Rahm began the day with three straight birdies to send a rather clear message to the other 119 players in the field: I'm the man to beat.
The round stalled a bit as he played his next eight holes in one over, but an up-and-down birdie at the par-5 12th righted the ship. It was at 16 that he kicked it into gear—Rahm poured in a 24-footer for eagle to reach five under for the day and tie the morning-wave leaders. It was the only eagle of the day on that hole. Which, of course, checks out. He's the finest golfer on the planet at the moment, and it's really not all that close.
"It's not like it was shaky in between," Rahm told reporters of that middle stretch. "I felt like I played a pretty good round of golf, it's just not easy. Those fairways are getting firm and they're not easy to hit. When you miss the fairway you're going to be chopping it out of the rough and hoping for dear life. But even in between I did have a lot of good looks for birdie."
He then smashed a 7-iron from 215—it's downhill and he was only trying to pitch it on the front edge, but still—as high as he could to hold the 17th green, a particularly firm surface on a course full of them. With its crispy greens and ankle-high rough, Bay Hill plays rather similar to a U.S. Open, and this was a major championship-quality shot—a mid iron that just barely carries onto the front edge then releases to tap-in range.
A splitsville tee shot at the 18th set up a little knockdown 9-iron that, in stunning news, he put to about six feet directly below the hole. And he was never going to miss that.
Rahm will tee off early on Friday morning, which is an advantage—winds are expected to pick up and reach the 30 mph range as the afternoon wears on. If he can post something double-digits under par through 36 holes, he could well have a multi-shot advantage heading into the weekend.
A victory this week would be Rahm's fourth of 2023, with three of those coming at elevated events. He has put distance between himself and Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy and everyone else, and he's beginning to develop an aura on the golf course. An, oh shit, he's coming aura. I haven't seen someone with that kind of juice since late 2020 Dustin Johnson, and I'd probably still give the edge to 2023 Jon Rahm. Data Golf says that this run he's on is, from a strokes gained perspective, the best any player has been in the post-Tiger era.
"I think the only difference between some of my rounds last year and this one was just putting," Rahm said. "I don't think in four days I made a single putt out here. And I made my fair share today. I've been putting a lot better this year."
His competitors have noticed. During his press conference on Wednesday, Max Homa shared a conversation he'd recently had with a non-superstar on tour.
"I was talking with a player last week that, you know, in this exact moment, is not in these designated events," Homa said. "He had mentioned how it was nice playing the Honda knowing that Jon Rahm is not there. That is a nice feeling right now. If Jon Rahm wasn't there in L.A. I would have clipped off my second one there and I would be a happy, happy man."
He's the one they're looking at. And he knows that when he's at his best, there's no one who can hang with him at the minute.