ORLANDO, Fla. – Jon Rahm was pleasantly surprised when he showed up to the first tee Wednesday morning at Bay Hill Club and Lodge and found out that his pro-am partner was Annika Sorenstam.
“I didn’t expect it,” Rahm said. “It’s really cool that she was out there because very few times do you get to play with the greatest of all-time, in any sport. I was asking here a couple of questions about what she accomplished. We always mention how none of us are ever going to get close to some of the things Tiger did, but she got 72 LPGA wins. … 10 majors and she stopped at what, age 36? Imagine if she had kept going. It’s incredible and it should be talked about more.”
Rahm is a main topic of conversation this week at Arnie’s Place, as the world No. 1 is making his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. If Rahm is being honest, he added the tournament to his schedule to fulfill his Player Impact Program obligation (Rahm finished ninth in the inaugural PIP race, the results being revealed Wednesday). But the Tour gave him four dates, and there was one clear option.
“That was the perfect excuse [to add this event],” Rahm said, “and that’s why I’m here.”
Make no mistake, Rahm is honored to finally be playing Mr. Palmer’s event. He met Palmer while competing in the Palmer Cup in college. Like many of his peers, Rahm has always admired Palmer, and he puts him right up there with Rahm’s fellow Spaniard, the late Seve Ballesteros, in terms of influence.
“He’s the King,” Rahm said. “There’s very few players in the history of this game that have the support and created the buzz around them that he did with more than just their golf game. Obviously, Jack and Tiger were unbelievable at what they did, but two players who stand out were Seve and Arnold. They had something special about them; maybe it was the shot-making ability, maybe it was the imagination, very different way of playing the game, I don’t know, whatever it was made them as big of stars as the two greatest that the game has ever seen, and maybe more impactful in certain ways.”
Full-field tee times from the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Rahm, also the tournament betting favorite, comes into this week’s tournament enjoying a run of five straight finishes of T-21 or better to open the new year, including a runner-up at Kapalua and T-3 at Torrey Pines. The ball-striking has been stellar; he’s just burned a few too many edges on the greens in recent tournaments.
Asked his initial thoughts on Bay Hill, which is traditionally thought of as a long-iron flusher’s paradise, Rahm said it reminded him a lot of Muirfield Village, where last year he led by six shots after 54 holes before being forced to withdraw with a positive COVID-19 result.
“Thick rough, bunkers, fairway; it’s pretty clear what you gotta do,” Rahm said. “I see why Tiger won so many times here. … He just relied on his mid-iron game, his 5, 6 and 7 irons, which he was so great at. I can see why he was dominant, and in the years where he had a little bit of a good driving week, he won by 10.”
Rahm also has picked the brains of a few players, including Rory McIlroy. But he’s wary of that advice, as it’s been all over the place and contradictory to what he’s seen so far. (To be fair, one caddie said that Bay Hill is in the best shape it’s been in more than a decade, and the course has grown the rough up more around the greens compared to previous years.)
“I was talking to Rory, and he’s like, ‘Oh, you can play conservative and just pick off the par 5s and hit an iron on 10, an iron here…,” Rahm recalled.
When Rahm caught up to McIlroy during a backup on the sixth hole on Wednesday, Rahm playfully called out: “Rory, where are the irons? I’m hitting drivers on every single hole.”
Not that Rahm is complaining. He leads the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, nearly a half-shot more than second-place Cameron Young.