DUBLIN, Ohio – Each shot is a battle.
Those are the words used by Jon Rahm who had just forged a four-shot 54-hole lead at the Memorial Tournament Presented by Nationwide at a fiery Muirfield Village.
And Rahm expects the battle will only get harder from here despite his incredible efforts.
On Saturday the 25-year-old shot a 4-under 68 that shared low round honors with Brendon Todd as the only two rounds in the 60s. The scoring average was 73.7.
It moved him to 12 under, four clear of Tony Finau (73) and Ryan Palmer (73) and six clear of the next challenger in former Masters champion Danny Willett (70). Jason Day (72) and Henrik Norlander (71) are seven back at five under.
With high temperatures, 15-20mph swirling winds, rock hard fairways, baked out greens and thick luscious rough waiting wayward shots … Muirfield has resembled a mini U.S. Open this week.
And yet so far Rahm has tamed the storied course each day as the only player with three rounds in the 60s. In fact he’s the only player with three under par rounds.
This could be enough to breed overconfidence but Rahm is smarter than that. While his score might suggest otherwise, Saturday was indeed a battle. Just ask 36-hole leader Finau who had a three-shot lead with seven holes to play. He navigated the last seven holes in four over while Rahm played them four under.
It is this sort of rapid swing that has Rahm’s attention as Sunday looms. Conditions are expected to be even tougher with continuing winds and an even firmer course. A lead could evaporate in the blink of an eye.
The place that Jack Nicklaus built is set to undertake a restoration immediately after the tournament allowing the Golden Bear and his team to push the greens right to the edge and create major championship level difficulty.
“Four shots on a windy, difficult, firm golf course is nothing. It’s me making two bogeys and somebody making one birdie and then suddenly it’s only a one-shot lead,” Rahm said.
“Whatever happens tomorrow happens, but it’ll be a great test for me to learn for the future, for major championships, because this is going to be the closest thing we get to a major championship without being one.”
Rahm is set to battle not just the conditions but also the fact world No. 1 status is in his reach. He will become just the second Spaniard, joining the late great Seve Ballesteros, to hold that honor with a win as long as Rory McIlroy doesn’t surge from 10 shots back to be the runner up.
On previous occasions with this carrot dangling Rahm has failed to close the deal but this represents his best chance yet.
“It’s obviously a big deal. I can’t sit here and try to diminish it and avoid it because it would just be lying to myself,” Rahm said of joining Ballesteros.
“It’s always tough to put it into words. Seve is a huge influence of mine. I’ve said many times thanks to that Ryder Cup in ’97 and his captaincy and the way he inspired many not only in Spain but in Europe, he’s the reason why I’m playing here today, and any time I can do something remotely close to what he did, it’s pretty emotional.
“I can’t lie. It’s something that deep in my core as a Spaniard and as a player I would love to achieve, and if you think about it, major champions that came after him like Sergio and Olazábal never got to be, so it would be quite unique.”
To get there Rahm knows he must channel his emotions. This is another battle he has faced throughout his career but one he believes he is starting to win. While having a large lead is clearly handy it now forces Rahm to wrestle with thoughts of playing his natural attacking game or trying to defend.
“There’s definitely been moments out there this week where I could have just lost it or maybe any past I would have gotten more frustrated and changed my game plan,” Rahm says. “Maybe a couple years ago I don’t think I would be here with a four-shot lead right now going into tomorrow.
“Each shot is a battle. There’s not one shot that you can let down on and you’ve just got to get the job done. It’s as simple as that. Mistakes are going to happen, and I just simply need to remember that I’m not the only one out there making mistakes, so hopefully I can keep hitting it great off the tee and keep giving myself chances to hit some good shots into the green.”
Those lining up behind Rahm remain confident knowing anything under par will apply some pressure and put those emotions he speaks of to the ultimate test.
“He’ll be the guy to catch tomorrow. I’ve got a four-shot deficit that I’m going to try to make up in the wind, and I think it’s doable,” Finau said.
“It’s more like survival tomorrow,” Day added. “If I can be patient out there, I think I have a good shot at it.”
Let the battle begin.