$3 million bonus for Rahm and unexpected debut at Bay Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jon Rahm plays so much during the West Coast swing that he could never find room in his schedule for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Now he has 1.5 million reasons to make his debut at Bay Hill.
Rahm, the U.S. Open champion and No. 1 player in the world, finished at No. 9 in the inaugural “Player Impact Program” that awards players who generate the most positive interest in golf. He received a $3 million bonus, but it comes with a catch.
The first payment is immediate, which in banking terms means within 30 days. The second installment is paid only after the top 10 players and the PGA Tour agree on a new tournament for them to play.
For someone like Phil Mickelson — he didn’t win as he claimed in December, but finished second to Tiger Woods — it was the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua.
For Rahm, it was Bay Hill.
His caddie, Adam Hayes, always told the Spaniard he would like it. Rahm played nine holes on Tuesday and the pro-am Wednesday and said he could see why Tiger Woods won it eight times.
“It’s one of those dates that hasn’t fit because I play so much on the West Coast,” said Rahm, who typically plays at least five times before the PGA Tour moves to Florida. “And one of the requisites of the PIP is to play an event. The PGA Tour gave me four dates, one of them being this one. That was the perfect excuse. And that’s why I’m here.”
He’s part of a strong field at another elevated event that offers a $12 million purse as golf takes a step closer to the Masters.
Riviera capped off the West Coast by attracting all 10 players from the top 10 in the world. Bay Hill has five of the top 10, and it’s missing its defending champion in Bryson DeChambeau, who says he’s not fully recovered from an injury.
Rahm turned pro the year Palmer died, through the Spaniard did get a chance to meet him during the two Palmer Cup matches he played while at Arizona State.
“I know enough of his career and legacy, but I didn’t get to have those one-on-one conversations that so many players had,” Rahm said.
He knows enough that when asked what comes to mind about Palmer, Rahm quickly replied, “The King.” He also could draw some comparisons with his hero growing up in Spain, Seve Ballesteros, often referred to as the Arnold Palmer of Europe for his appeal.
Rory McIlroy didn’t play the Arnold Palmer Invitational for five years after coming to the PGA Tour and he hasn’t missed it since then.
McIlroy at least had chances for a meaningful chat. The most famous of the encounters came during McIlroy’s debut year at Bay Hill. Palmer asked him during lunch if there was anything he needed and McIlroy replied: “Mr. Palmer, thanks to you, I have everything I could ever need in my life. I’m all set.” The King teared up at those words.
“It’s always nice to be here and try to remember his legacy and remember what he meant to everyone,” McIlroy said. “He was probably the catalyst with maybe a few other guys of why we’re here today and why the game of professional golf is at such a high level.”
McIlroy tried to pass along a few tips to Rahm, but that didn’t go very well. There are a few changes at Bay Hill, some of them weather-related. The rough is thicker than usual, even some areas away from the green that used to be collection areas.
The course is in mint condition, perhaps not as fast in recent years.
“I was talking to Rory. He was like: ‘You can play conservative, pick off the par 5s. You can hit iron on 10, iron here,’” Rahm said.
And then they ran into each other during the pro-am when there was a backup on the par-5 sixth hole.
“I said: ‘Rory, where are the irons? I’m hitting driver on every single hole,’” Rahm said.
The good news for Rahm is Bay Hill shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out with the rough and bunkers framing fairways. It’s all about position, and in that respect it reminds Rahm of Muirfield Village, where he won in 2020 and tied the 54-hole record last year (before getting a positive COVID-19 test and having to withdraw).
“I can tell, seeing the course, Tiger was conservative all the way around and relying on his iron game,” Rahm said. “The years he had a little bit of a good driving week, he won by 10.”
That was actually an 11-shot victory in 2003 while dealing with food poisoning.
Rahm, who hasn’t won since the U.S. Open last summer, hit the ball as well as anyone at Riviera and couldn’t buy a putt. That’s not a concern.
“I think every player goes through that,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that things are bad. I’ve seen a lot of putts graze the hole and not go in. That’s just golf sometimes.”