I think it was George Carlin who had a comedy bit in his stand-up act that mocked the notion of someone putting on their “game face.” Cue Carlin trying out several goofy facial expressions mimicking the hypothetical professional athlete who is ready to get down to business to take their craft extra-seriously. Carlin was the best.
I thought of this joke when handicapping the US Open and reading many of the assessments regarding Jon Rahm’s chances of winning the tournament. The Spaniard was returning to action for the first time since having to disqualify himself ten days prior after the third round of the Memorial Tournament where he held a dominant six-stroke lead before getting word that he tested positive for COVID. With Rahm out of the way, space was opened up for Patrick Cantlay to outduel Collin Morikawa to win Jack Nicklaus’ tournament at Muirfield Village.
There was some commentary that Rahm should have been allowed to complete the final round by himself early the next day in place of having to be disqualified. That is absurd. Part of the professional challenge in winning a golf tournament is to handle the pressure of performing when winning or losing is on the line. Round Four of a golf tournament is not the SATs, to be completed whenever possible. Besides, letting Rahm play by himself to complete the tournament would have given him a competitive advantage after violating a tournament rule (don’t test positive for COVID). It was unfortunate, but so are many of the rules of professional golf. The rules should not change depending on how where the golfer is on the leader board at the time.
I digress. With Rahm cleared from COVID quarantine just in time for the US Open at Torrey Pines, many observers picked Rahm to win the event because he would be particularly motivated to prove himself after being robbed of his chance to win the Memorial.
There were plenty of reasons to favor Rahm to win the US Open — but thinking he retained “extra” motivation after his DQ two weeks earlier was not a good one. At all. Was Rahm not motivated to finally win his first major before losing out on his opportunity to win the Memorial in Round Four? Were his competitors that week less motivated to win a major championship because their season had yet to be interrupted by COVID (or anything else). Brooks Koepka? Bryson DeChambeau? Jordan Spieth? Really?
And, look, I am a handicapper that tries to make assessments into relative differences in motivation. That level of qualitative analysis is one of the tools in my proverbial toolbox. The handicappers and forecasters that rely exclusively on quantitative analysis tend to dismiss motivation as a factor. I think there are plenty of times when there may be discrepancies between two sides regarding how much they want to win — even amongst professionals. To be specific, I suspect that the drive that Phil Mickelson had to win the US Open may not have been as strong as it was when he pulled off his historic victory at the PGA Championship the previous month.
Don’t get me wrong: when Mickelson teed off on the first tee in the first round, he probably wanted to win just as much as Jon Rahm or Brooks Koepka did. But this gets to the broader point: I care about motivation when it translates into harder and longer work to prepare for a tournament or game. If the players on the University of Michigan football team are all preparing ten extra hours in the week preparing to play arch-rival Ohio State, that may finally translate into a victory again against the Buckeyes. I am not sure if Mickelson worked quite as hard to prepare for the US Open as he was to prepare for the PGA Championship. It is only natural to level off your work once you find the success one is seeking.
For Rahm, being even more motivated to win the US Open after suffering his DQ at the Memorial would have translated into more time practicing his craft on the golf course. But Rahm was required to be in quarantine — so he could not put in the work that makes the difference vis-a-vis your peers when there is a difference in motivation.
Maybe the physical and mental break from golf helped Rahm once the US Open started? Could be — but that is a different argument (and one I considered). There were plenty of good reasons to like Rahm to win the US Open. He ranked number one on the tour in Adjusted Scoring at the time. He was playing great golf, as evidenced by his dominant lead at the Memorial before his DQ. He had a great course history at Torrey Pines. But Rahm wanting to prove something after losing out his chance to win the Memorial was not one of them. He was robbed of the ability to translate that extra incentive into the tangible work that makes a difference once the competition starts. And I do not buy the notion that competitors care more about success once their event starts.
I passed on Rahm to win the US Open, mostly because his price at +1000 was too low. It looked like an underlay bet to me. My Best Best was on Brooks Koepka who closed at +1600 to win — and he finished fourth. Koepka is on record admitting his focus tends to wane at non-majors — so there is no way I think he was less motivated to win his third US Open than Rahm was to finally win his first major championship.
Rahm having something to prove at the US Open after getting DQed in his last start was an easy sound bite or sentence to write. Too easy, and not very smart. As if the DQ afforded Rahm the opportunity he finally needed to find his “game face.”
Best of luck — Frank.