Severiano Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal both won the US Masters twice and although Sergio Garcia has never quite made that major championship breakthrough alongside his compatriots he is a Spanish golfer who took the game by storm. Jon Rahm is the next in line and he has a great chance to win the Houston Open from Thursday and contend at Augusta in the Masters next week.
There are certain traditions related to major championship golf that have passed the test of time. A player never wins a major having won the previous week and the winner of the par 3 tournament at Augusta does not win the Green Jacket later in the week. In 2013 Phil Mickelson won the Scottish Open in the week before winning the British version so that is possible but the Masters hoodoo is still valid. In fact players may almost try not to win the par 3 tournament with the record in mind.
Rahm is playing in the Houston Open for the first time against a high class field. Some players like to prepare for a major championship away from the competitive arena while others prefer to hone their game for one of the four events that matter most in a tournament environment. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are in the first group while Jordan Spieth believes in getting out there ahead of a major.
Johnson has just won on his last three starts and the last player to do that was McIlroy during his purple patch in the summer of 2014. Since becoming the world number one Johnson is unbeaten which in the context of tournament golf is an outstanding achievement. The Masters next week could become a showdown between statistically the best player in the world and a player who needs to win it to complete the career Grand Slam. Rahm has the ability to muddy the waters but for now the Houston Open is his focus and he can contend.
The tournament is being played at the Golf Club of Houston and the layout has been set up to replicate some of the features of Augusta. The greens have been prepared to be fast and the putting surfaces at the Masters are treacherous and provide one of the defences of a course that can be taken apart from tee to green. The Houston course was opened in 2005 and since then has gained the approval of the players in its approximation in design to the natural features of Augusta National.
It is a perfect layout for Spieth who in three US Masters appearances has not finished outside the top 3. He was dominant in 2015 and was on the verge of winning a second Green Jacket last year before making a mess of holes around Amen Corner. A second title looked done and dusted but his aberration let in Danny Willett who took the bull by the horns to become the unlikely Masters champion. Spieth leads the Tour in greens hit and has made the top 15 in the last two Houston Opens so looks a worthy favourite.
He is one of the four top 10 players in the world rankings showing up in Houston and amongst 10 of the top 25. Lee Westwood is another player who has never quite got the job done in a major. Since moving back to England in 2015 Houston has been the only non- major he has contested in the States. Like Garcia his major winning chances may have gone and there is now a breed of contenders in their 20’s and Rahm is in that group. Ballesteros and Olazabal both won the Masters before their 30th birthday.
Rickie Fowler has made five from five cuts at Houston and has a game suited to the course. Russell Henley and Lucas Glover are both great fits for this week’s challenge. Henrik Stenson has made the top 3 in five Houston visits. All the players mentioned have chances but their focus could be elsewhere while Rahm is on the crest of a wave.
At the time of writing 29 players who are in the Masters are part of the 144 player lineup at the Houston Open. That includes Rahm who pushed Johnson all the way in the final of the world match play last week. His confidence must be sky high and since winning at Torrey Pines he’s gone tied 16-tied 5-tied 3 and 2nd. Rahm has the form and momentum to get in the mix this week and he can win the US Masters next week and establish himself as the next golfing superstar from Spain.